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Coronavirus: new survey suggests UK public supports a long lockdown

Government ministers in the UK are reportedly in disagreement over whether to lift lockdown restrictions in May, or to keep these measures in place until the summer. Onlookers ranging from journalists to Conservative MP Liam Fox have presumed that British people want the lockdown to end “as quickly as possible”. But the results of a recent survey my team ran indicate the opposite.

We found that 87% believed the lockdown should continue for at least another three weeks (with 6% unsure and 7% disagreeing). A similarly whopping 89% said they supported the government policy of requiring all non-essential workers to stay at home. The survey involved 2,502 UK residents through two panels on April 9-11. The proportion of respondents with different ages and genders mirrored the UK population as a whole.

Throughout the pandemic, governments have been keen to hint at their plans in ways that give their population some sense of what is coming without boxing themselves into particular timelines. On April 9, the day our survey opened, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab summarised the UK’s near-term plans by saying “the measures will have to stay in place until the evidence shows we have moved beyond the peak”.

When asked their opinion on whether the UK’s plans over the next few weeks were “not firm enough with restrictions on people” or were “putting too many restrictions on people”, roughly a fifth said they didn’t know what the plans were. Of the rest, 56% felt they were not firm enough, while 19% felt that they imposed too many restrictions. (The remaining 25% did not lean one way or the other.)

Perhaps more surprising is that when asked how they felt about the UK government’s plans over the next few months, which have been sketchy at best, only one fifth said they didn’t know what the government’s plans were. Of the rest, 51% felt they knew enough to say the government would not be firm enough in terms of restrictions, while 22% felt that it would impose too many. Many survey respondents left comments outlining additional steps that they felt the UK should be taking, such as expanded testing, travel restrictions, stricter enforcement of existing measures or mandating mask-wearing.

If UK residents seem to have a greater tolerance for lockdown than their neighbours across the pond – where there have been numerous protests against state lockdowns – keep in mind that Britons’ level of concern about COVID-19 may be uniquely high. Our recent analysis of data from a similar poll from March, recently accepted for publication by the Journal of Risk Research, found that the UK had the highest levels of perceived risk out of the ten countries surveyed: Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

But worries were high across the board – even in the US. Similarly, a recent study from Yale University found that over 80% of Americans believe that stopping the spread of the coronavirus is more important than stopping the country’s economic decline, protests notwithstanding.

People take their daily exercise at Blyth Beach huts in Northumberland, as the UK continues in lockdown. Owen Humphreys/PA Wire/PA Images

What this means

We also asked respondents to indicate whether they felt they had enough information from the government to take the necessary actions to minimise their risk from coronavirus on a sliding scale from “not at all” to “very much”. The proportion of respondents who felt they had enough information (those on the “very much” half of the scale) rose from 64% in March 19-20 to about 80% in our April survey. This is a major improvement, but 10% felt the opposite, with the remaining ~10% squarely in the middle. This indicates that the UK government still has some way to go to ensure everyone has the information they need.

If ministers’ proposals to end the lockdown sooner rather than later are arising partly from a perception that people are itching for an immediate end to the current policy, these concerns are misplaced. That said, government would do well to keep its pulse on nationally representative public opinion polls on this issue, as this is likely to change over time.

The high levels of concern among the British public also suggest that turning the economic tap back on may be more challenging than anticipated. For example, if people remain unwilling to patronise pubs, restaurants and retail outlets, then continued economic support for these industries may be necessary for a long time to come.

Assuaging public fears will not be as easy as simply telling people that the danger has passed. Thankfully, most UK residents in our April surveys indicated high levels of trust in the UK’s national scientific and medical advisers, with over 90% placing as much or more trust in them than in the country’s politicians.

But to preserve that trust, and to avoid having to make the sorts of policy u-turns we experienced in early March, scientific models and modelling assumptions should be transparent and shared widely with relevant experts, so that shaky assumptions can be corrected before they become baked into policy. Furthermore, scientists should be open about their uncertainties – research suggests that the public can handle the truth. In the words of the UK Statistics Authority’s principal adviser on the assessment of official statistics, “being trustworthy depends not on conveying an aura of infallibility, but on honesty and transparency”.

It remains unclear at what point UK residents will feel that the pain of lockdown exceeds the benefits, and we do not envy the difficult decisions that policymakers will have to take with limited information. But we can only hope they will do so with a clear-eyed attention to the science, as well as the concerns and needs of the British public.

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