A Detailed Timeline of Public Opinion on the UK’s Mask Policy

July 21, 2020
R&WS Research Team
Approval Rating | Coronavirus | Coronavirus Lockdown Measures | Coronavirus Restrictions | Health | UK Government

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Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, Redfield & Wilton Strategies has conducted regular polling examining public attitudes towards face mask usage and Government mask policies in the UK. At a crucial stage for ‘mask policy’ in the UK, with the Government announcing that masks will be compulsory in shops from 24 July, this article highlights the key trends identified by our research.

Overwhelming Approval for Requiring Masks in Shops

The recent Government decision to mandate the use of masks/face coverings in all shops has the approval of an overwhelming majority (73%) of the public.

Despite recent articles highlighting that some Conservative Party members were dismayed with the decision to make mask usage compulsory in shops, it is clear that this group represents a very small minority among the party’s voters. Indeed, 72% of those who voted Conservative in 2019 approve of the recent decision, while only 16% disapprove. Altogether, 13% of all respondents disapprove of the new measure, suggesting that so-called anti-maskers represent a small minority of the UK public.

The most striking indication of public support for mandatory mask usage in shops may be that an overwhelming majority are in favour of the rule being enforced by the police. Anyone disregarding the rules will be at risk of a £100 fine, which 70% of respondents agreed would be an acceptable punishment.

Although the chair of the Metropolitan Police Federation has stated that it will be “nigh-on impossible” for police to enforce the government’s plan, the fact that the public approves of relatively stringent punishments being applied for non-compliance indicates that they believe violation of the rule is a fairly serious offence.

Why Not Sooner?

As the public is so strongly in favour of the change in policy, we asked respondents why the Government has not made this decision until now. Strikingly, a plurality of respondents (40%) think that the reason why the Government has so far only required masks on public transport was due to the Government considering that masks were not ‘essential to combating the virus,’ therefore suggesting that a plurality of the public believed the Government made decisions on masks on the basis of (perhaps erroneous) scientific advice.

On the other hand, a significant minority (23%) said that ‘the Government believed that masks could help but were concerned that the policy would be too unpopular for effective implementation.’ As polling has consistently suggested that the public overwhelmingly support mask usage in certain situations, it seems incoherent that the Government would hold this reasoning. A further 19% argued that ‘the Government did not think there were enough masks for everyone and were concerned about saving masks for medical workers.’ While there was undoubtedly concern about a mask shortage at the peak of the pandemic in April, masks have been widely available for several weeks since then.

When we asked a similar question in April, prior to the Government’s introduction of mandatory face masks on public transport, or indeed their decision to advise the public to wear face masks in enclosed spaces, our findings were markedly different. At this stage, a plurality (46%) of respondents considered that the Government’s inaction was motivated by their belief that there were not enough masks for everyone, and concerns about saving masks for medical workers. A strong minority (39%) of the public believed the Government thought masks would not help, and that they would give the public a false sense of security, while just 5% of Brits thought that the reason for not introducing mandatory masks was the Government’s belief that the policy would be too unpopular.

Although divided on the reasons for the Government’s hesitance on masks, a clear majority of the public (61%) agree that the Government’s unwillingness to make masks mandatory sooner has cost lives. Only 14% of the public disagree that the Government’s actions (or lack thereof) has not cost lives.

Notably, a strong plurality (48%) of 2019 Conservative voters agree that the Government’s hesitance to make face masks compulsory has cost lives. Just 21% of those who backed the Government at the last election think that their policies regarding face masks have not cost lives.

While the Government has defended its decision to delay implementing the new rules on masks until July 24 on the basis that people and businesses need time to prepare, two-thirds (67%) of the public think the new rules on compulsory face masks should be implemented sooner.

Moreover, a clear majority (62%) of 2019 Conservatives believe masks should be made mandatory in shops prior July 24. Across our polling, voters who backed the Conservative Party in the 2019 General Election have consistently displayed their disapproval with the Government’s approach to mask policy, and not for mandating it against their wishes, but for being slow to mandate it.

Some commentators have argued that face masks will make “life so unpleasant that many people will prefer to stay away. In other words, it repels at least as much as it attracts.” The evidence from our polling disputes this viewpoint. Although a clear plurality (47%) are neither more nor less likely to visit a shop when the new rule on masks is implemented, 31% of the public say they are more likely to visit one. By contrast, 21% of the population say they are less likely to visit a shop after the new rule comes into effect.

The Government’s change in masks policy is a key aspect of their attempt to convince the public that they are safe to return to the high street and spend their disposable income. A significant majority of the public (64%) believe that they will feel safer visiting a shop if all other visitors and staff wear masks. Indeed, a quarter of all respondents stated they will feel significantly safer (25%). Just 4% would feel less safe.

Nevertheless, the Government has clarified that retail staff will not be required to wear masks, and therefore face-coverings will not be universal. Ultimately, while it is uncertain at this stage to what extent an increased feeling of safety within shops will directly result in an increase in footfall, it seems likely that the policy will have some degree of a positive impact on public behaviour.

While customers will now be required to wear a mask in certain enclosed public spaces such as supermarkets and shops, it is clear that in hospitality venues (for example in pubs and restaurants), masks would not be practical for patrons who are eating and drinking. There is currently no requirement for staff to wear masks when serving customers, yet a clear plurality (47%) of the public state that they are more likely to visit a restaurant or pub if the staff wear masks to cover their mouth and nose, a finding which may encourage more business owners to request their employees wear face coverings.

Public Transport

Meanwhile, regarding government policy beyond shops and other businesses, masks were mandated on public transport in the UK on 15 June. Our polling had indicated that the public was supportive of this idea several weeks prior to the policy’s implementation. In mid-May, 64% thought face masks should be compulsory on public transport, but the policy was not introduced until a month later.

Support for compulsory mask use on public transport rose to 77% by the 11th June, after the Government announced it would start requiring the use of face masks on public transport in the near future.

A week later, on the 18th June, support for compulsory masks on public transport once again rose to 81%, despite only 14% of respondents from that poll saying they had taken public transport during the preceding week. Thus, the high rates of support for the policy were not being driven by respondents who had actually been on public transport and had to wear a mask, but rather by the majority of respondents who had not used public transport but wanted others to use it as safely as possible.

Compliance and Ownership

Our polls since April indicate not only a high rate of support for the Government making mask usage compulsory in certain public places, but also a very high willingness to comply with the rules. For example, in April, an overwhelming majority (86%) stated that they would comply with an order requiring the public to wear masks.

In mid-June, three days after masks became a requirement for anyone travelling on public transport, 88% of those who had used public transport since the introduction of the new rule stated that they had complied and worn a mask.

After the Government announced that masks would be made compulsory in shops from 24 July, 84% of the public stated that they would comply with the new rule. Only 9% of the public does not intend to comply with the new rule.

Levels of compliance will also be boosted by the widespread ownership of masks across the UK: 86% of respondents to our mid-July poll said they own a face mask.

Moreover, an overwhelming majority (76%) of respondents indicate that they own a washable face mask (or enough disposable ones) to enable them to wear a clean mask every time they wear one. This high percentage indicates that not only is mask usage becoming more widespread, but that it is also being done appropriately by the great majority of the population.

Likewise, despite fears about mask shortages in the early stages of the pandemic, suppliers in the UK seem to have adapted well to the rising demand for face masks, and shortages are not a problem. Indeed, our poll found that 86% of respondents said they know where they can buy a mask from, if needed.

Perhaps as a result of the public knowing where they can buy a face mask from, as well as the high levels of mask ownership at this stage, a clear plurality (41%) of respondents think that individuals should be responsible for sourcing their own masks, as opposed to the Government providing them (34%). In the context of the decision to require mask usage inside shops, only 17% think that the shops themselves should be responsible for providing masks to their customers.

In contrast to the majority of responses relating to masks, public opinion on who should be responsible for supplying masks has a clear party-political dimension. A plurality (40%) of 2019 Labour voters think the Government should distribute masks to the population for customers to utilise in shops, while only a third (33%) believe it should be the responsibility of the individual. In contrast, almost half (48%) of those who supported the Conservatives in last year’s General Election consider that the individual should be responsible for sourcing their own masks, while 30% believe it to be the Government’s responsibility.

Mask Adoption Absent Compulsion

Increasing access to masks in the UK may be one key factor in the gradual rise in self-reported usage in the UK over the past few months, in addition to the broader communication to the public that masks are useful. In late April, roughly a month after lockdown was first imposed by the Government, only 32% of the public said they had worn a mask at some point since the start of the pandemic. Moreover, only 7% said they wore one always and 11% quite often.

Three weeks later, by mid-May, the proportion who said they had worn a mask at some point since the start of the pandemic rose to 40%. However, only 16% said they always (or almost always) wore a mask, and a further 17% said they sometimes wore a mask.

By mid-June, shortly after the Government made mask usage compulsory on public transport, the proportion of respondents who had worn a mask at some point in the previous week reached 50%. However, the proportion who said they always wore a mask remained relatively constant at 12%, and so did the proportion who said they wore one most of the time (19%).

A month later, our latest poll (conducted on 15 July) found that 72% of the public now say they wear a mask when they leave their home, particularly in London. Their usage remains notably inconsistent, with only 18% saying they always wear one, and a further 19% saying they wear one most of the time. Nevertheless, the 37% who always or almost always wear a face mask in public is a figure twice as large as the 19% who said they always or almost always wore a face mask in mid-April, one month into the lockdown. Therefore, consistent mask usage appears to have doubled in the UK since mid-April to a third of the population now saying they always or almost always wear a mask in public.

However, almost a quarter (24%) of respondents say they never wear a mask when leaving their home. Although this number is a far smaller proportion than the 68% who had not worn a face mask by mid-April, it nevertheless constitutes a significant minority of the UK population, and perhaps suggests one reason the Government has decided to make mask usage in shops compulsory.

Comparison between different countries provides strong evidence that the introduction of rules mandating masks in UK shops will rapidly increase mask usage rates. Currently, 29% of the UK public ‘always’ wear a mask to cover their mouth and nose when they shop at the supermarket. In contrast to the UK, masks are already compulsory in shops in Germany, Spain and Italy, a policy which has had a clear impact on levels of mask wearing: 79% of Germans, 77% of Spaniards and 80% of Italians always wear a mask when shopping at the supermarket.

Meanwhile, 57% of respondents in the United States, where masks are compulsory in several, but not all, states, say they ‘always’ wear a mask to cover their face. In France, the government has not mandated the use of masks in shops, but French shop owners can decide whether or not they wish to make masks compulsory in their stores. Although this approach to masks policy has resulted in the majority (59%) of the French public always wearing a mask while shopping, the level of mask usage in the country remains significantly lower than in neighbouring Germany, Spain, and Italy. [1]

In order to address the country’s relatively limited mask usage, France has also decided to make masks compulsory in confined indoor spaces. Overall, inter-country analysis highlights that widespread adoption of masks in enclosed public spaces, such as shops, occurs where governmental rules have mandated their usage, although a considerable number may still wear masks absent such compulsion.

Analysis of several polls conducted with the public across April, May, June and July has indicated a number of trends in the United Kingdom in relation to opinion about masks. Our polling has highlighted that the public overwhelmingly support the Government deciding to mandate masks, whenever the Government does so, including the latest decision to mandate masks in shops. If the public is broadly critical of the Government’s approach to mask policy so far, it is for being too slow.

The overwhelming majority of Brits are willing to comply with changes to legislation. In fact, the latest change in policy will make nearly a third of the public more likely to visit shops, and further measures may need to be adopted in the hospitality sector, such as in restaurants and pubs, to encourage more people to return.

There is a high level of mask ownership amongst the UK population, but mask usage continues to lag far behind several other major European countries, and therefore further changes in policy may appear warranted. Redfield & Wilton Strategies will continue to monitor the public’s attitude towards masks, and their role in the so-called ‘new normal’ over the coming weeks and months.

[1] Note: ‘Not Applicable’ was erroneously not provided as an option in France. Even so, this omission does not prevent comparison here.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Follow us on Twitter

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