Amid Dramatic Rise in Cases, British Public Feels More Unsafe Than Ever Before in the Coronavirus Crisis

January 18, 2021
R&WS Research Team
Consumer Behaviour | Coronavirus | Coronavirus Lockdown Measures | Coronavirus Restrictions | Health | Hospitality Industry | Lifestyle | Lifestyle and Society | Transport | Work From Home

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Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, our research has monitored personal reactions to the pandemic. In particular, we regularly measured the extent to which respondents feel safe or unsafe engaging in a range of activities previously considered ‘everyday’. Regularly tracking perceptions of safety and unsafety reveals public opinion about how and where the coronavirus is transmitted, and also provides evidence of subtle fluctuations in the public understanding of the direction of the pandemic.

Currently, only 56% of British respondents say they feel safe going outside their home at all, whereas more than a third (35%) say they would feel unsafe going outside their home. Male respondents (59%) are somewhat more likely to say they feel safe leaving their home than female respondents (53%). Intriguingly, respondents aged 18-24-years old are the least likely (47%) to say they feel safe going outside their home at all, while older adults aged 55 or above (63%) are most likely to feel safe. This finding comes despite the higher risks from coronavirus the older you are. Conservative voters (63%) are significantly more likely to feel safe going outside at all than Labour supporters (49%) despite generally having an older average age.

Feelings of safety about going outside the home are much lower than in the ten preceding polls we have conducted on the issue since mid-July. Indeed, prior to this point, at least two thirds (67%) have said they felt safe. Feelings of unsafety had not exceeded 26% of the population until now.

Earlier in the pandemic, in mid-April 2020, we posed a similar question, asking respondents whether they would feel safe performing a number of activities if the lockdown measures came to a sudden halt. Notably, the proportion who said they felt safe back in April (57%) is very similar to the proportion who feel safe now (56%), although it is worth pointing out that “don’t know” was not available as an answer code in our April poll.

The latest coronavirus restrictions in the UK mandate the closure of all hospitality venues, including restaurants and pubs. UK Hospitality says the closure of pubs, restaurants and hotels is costing business owners a total of £500 million a month, even allowing for any government support. At this stage, 77% of the British public say they would feel unsafe eating at a restaurant or drinking at a pub inside. Only 16% would feel safe, and 7% don’t know. Younger respondents are most likely to say they would feel safe, although only around a quarter (25-26%) hold this view.

The public feels much more unsafe visiting the interior of a hospitality venue than at any stage in the latter half of 2020. In our polls since July 2020, between 26% and 43% have said that they would feel safe eating at a restaurant or drinking at a pub inside, compared to 16% at this stage. The current proportion (16%) is similar to the 19% in April 2020 who said that they would feel safe going to a restaurant or pub, if they were to reopen suddenly.

Although our question in April asked about the safety of restaurants generally—without differentiating between indoors and outdoors—considering those results from April helps highlight how the current level of fear appears as high as it was during the uncertain early days of the pandemic.

When it comes to outdoor dining, only a quarter (25%) of respondents now say they would feel safe eating at a restaurant or drinking at a pub outside. Although transmission of coronavirus is much more rare outdoors, two thirds (67%) say they would feel unsafe.

Public perceptions about the safety of eating and drinking outdoors have changed rapidly since our last poll six weeks ago, when a slight plurality (46%) said they felt safe visiting an outdoor hospitality venue, compared to just a quarter now (25%). Indeed, in several polls at different points in 2020 – including on 21 October, 1 October, 2 September, 24 August and 12 August, a majority felt safe eating or drinking outdoors.

In the second part of 2020, Government advice on whether people should go in to work changed multiple times. In July, the Prime Minister said people should “start to go back to work now if you can,” yet by October, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said that people in England should work from home “if they can.” Further encouragement to work from home occurred during the second national lockdown in November and the tier system which succeeded it. Currently, a majority (51%) of the working population say they would feel unsafe going to work, while just 38% would feel safe. 11% don’t know. In comparison, in seven polls conducted between September to December 2020, a clear plurality or majority (49% to 56%) said they would feel safe, and only 33% to 40% said they would feel unsafe.

Throughout the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, one of the few activities that most people have felt safe engaging in is food shopping. At this moment, less than half (48%) of British respondents say they would feel safe food shopping. 43% say they would feel unsafe, and 9% say they don’t know. Interestingly, the youngest adults aged 18 to 24 and the oldest adults aged 65 or above are the only age brackets where a majority (51% to 54%) say they would feel safe food shopping.

Public perceptions of safety when food shopping have declined rapidly since our polling in 2020, when a clear majority of between 62% and 71% felt safe. Prior to our latest poll on January 11, feelings of unsafety since July had never exceeded 30%. Our research will monitor whether the decision of the four major supermarket chains to enforce mask wearing across their stores from this week results in any change on feelings of safety in grocery shops.

While food stores remail open, the non-essential retail sector has been forced to close by the latest nationwide lockdown, an unwelcome development for an industry which suffered its worst annual performance on record in 2020. Less than a quarter (24%) say they would feel safe shopping for clothing and such items at this moment, compared to two thirds (66%) who say they would feel unsafe. A clear plurality or majority (49% to 74%) of all age groups would feel unsafe, although younger people are much more likely to feel safe than older respondents.

In parallel to other everyday activities, the proportion of respondents who say they now feel safe shopping for clothing has dipped substantially since late 2020. Prior to our latest poll, at least 38% felt safe shopping for clothes, and a majority (52% to 53%) in late August and early September held this view. Feelings of safety have dropped by eighteen points in the six weeks since early December, while the proportion who feel unsafe has increased by twenty-one points.

Only in mid-April, at the height of the first wave, did we see comparable levels of fear in regard to going to the shops (whether for food or for something else), when 44% said they would feel safe and 56% said they would feel unsafe going shopping.

The Government was especially keen to keep gyms open in late 2020, given their benefits to mental and physical health. Indeed, gyms remained open in Tier 3, whereas hospitality venues were closed except for takeaway. Other indoor entertainment were also closed in this tier. Nevertheless, despite their relatively recent closure in some areas, only a small minority (15%) now say they would feel safe going to the gym, and over three quarter (76%) would feel unsafe.

While feelings of safety about going to the gym are lower than at any point since we started monitoring, the shift is less notable than in other settings. Indeed, less than a quarter (18% to 23%) have felt safe since we started tracking data in August. In April, 19% said they would feel safe going to the gym, while 81% said they would feel unsafe.

The Department of Transport’s latest figures demonstrate that, while down significantly, public transport usage remains higher than in the first wave of the pandemic in March and April 2020, which is possibly a result of more workplaces remaining open this time (in the manufacturing and construction industries, for example). Overall, almost three quarters (74%) of the public now say they would feel unsafe using public transport, and less than a fifth (18%) would feel safe. Those in London (24%) and Scotland (26%) are slightly more likely to feel safe using public transport than those in other regions and nations of the UK.

For comparison, a fifth (20%) of those polled at the height of the first wave in mid-April said they would feel safe taking public transportation, whereas 80% said they would feel unsafe.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, there have been big reductions in the number of people attending hospital A&E departments in England. There has also been a significant drop in diagnostic tests, as the NHS focused on tackling the coronavirus. Indeed, only 29% now say they would feel safe visiting a hospital for something not related to the coronavirus, whereas 63% would feel unsafe. Interestingly, there is limited differentiation between different age brackets in regard to the proportion who feel safe (24% to 29%) or unsafe (58% to 69%).

The proportion of the British public who feel safe visiting a hospital is at its lowest point since July. In the six weeks since 2 December, the percentage who express safety engaging in this activity has declined by twelve points, while it is twenty-four points lower than on 2 September, when a majority (51%) said they would feel safe visiting a hospital.

In April, 31% said they would feel safe going to the hospital for something unrelated to coronavirus, while 69% said they would feel unsafe. This number back then is roughly comparable to what we are now seeing today.

Under the current lockdown, it is forbidden to visit a friend’s house. Engagement with someone who does not live in your household is only permitted outside. Indeed, only a fifth (20%) would now feel safe visiting a friend’s house, while 71% would feel unsafe.

The proportion who feels unsafe has increased by a considerable nineteen points since 2 December, while it is almost twice as high as during three polls conducted between 12 August and 2 September (37%). Furthermore, the public are much more wary about visiting a friend’s house than they were at the height of the first wave. In mid-April, 37% said they would feel safe and 63% considered they would be unsafe.

Travelling to another region of the UK is currently only permitted in certain circumstances, such as work. At this stage, only 13% of British respondents say they would feel safe travelling to another area of the country (the mode of transport was not specified). The overwhelming majority (78%) say they would feel unsafe. Feeling safe engaging in this activity is much higher among younger people, many of whom may have travelled during the Christmas period. Overall, almost a quarter (24%) of those aged 18-24 would feel safe, compared to only 7% of those aged 65 or above.

Concern about the safety of travelling to other areas of the country has increased dramatically since summer, when domestic travel was encouraged to support the tourism industry. In August and early September, a plurality (46% to 48%) felt safe travelling to another part of the UK, a proportion which is more than 30 points higher than now.

Similar results were returned when respondents were asked about how safe they would feel traveling to another country. Just 11% said they would feel safe, whereas 83% said they would feel unsafe.

Feelings of safety regarding travel overseas has remained low throughout the coronavirus crisis, peaking at just 20% on 12 August.

High levels of concern about the safety risks of travelling to another country are directly correlated with widespread feelings of unsafety regarding taking a flight. Overall, 83% said they feel unsafe flying (the same proportion who feel unsafe travelling to another country), and 11% feel safe (also the same proportion). The overwhelming majority (72% to 78%) consistently felt flying was unsafe in our polling during 2020.

Ultimately, our latest polling in Great Britain provides overwhelming evidence that the British public is more concerned about their personal safety with respect to the threat of contracting coronavirus than at any point since we started polling the coronavirus crisis in 2020. Across a wide range of previously routine activities, British respondents now feel more unsafe than during several polls we conducted in the second half of last year. Moreover, large sections of the public also feel unsafe engaging in pursuits which are still legally allowed––including leaving the home, shopping for groceries, and visiting a hospital for something other than coronavirus. Overall, these findings underscore a sharp turn in how safe or unsafe the British public feels while engaging in a range of activities, highlighting the impact of the rapid increase in coronavirus cases in recent weeks. Even activities that had been perceived as safe for the duration of the pandemic (such as shopping for groceries) are now viewed as unsafe by the majority.

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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