Britain’s Youth Is Driving Opposition to Lockdown

November 18, 2020
R&WS Research Team
Coronavirus | Coronavirus Lockdown Measures | Coronavirus Restrictions | Health | Young People | Youth

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Amid a second lockdown, our latest GB-wide polling last week found public opinion in Britain split on how much longer this lockdown should last.

A plurality (41%) believe that the lockdown should end on or before 2nd December, while just over a third (35%) of respondents think it should continue beyond 2nd December. Those who voted Conservative in 2019 are noticeably more likely (47%) to think the lockdown should end by 2nd December than those who voted Labour (36%).

By comparison, towards the end of April this year (more than a month into the first lockdown), 60% of the public was supportive of a further extension to that lockdown, and many were even scared at the prospect of the end of that lockdown.

Even so, the public seems to expect that the Government will extend this lockdown beyond its current end date. Our poll finds that half (50%) of respondents think the lockdown will continue beyond 2nd December, while only 37% think it will actually end on or before that date. Therefore, there is a palpable disconnect between what the public thinks should happen (an end to lockdown by 2nd December) and what the public thinks the Government will choose to do (extend the lockdown beyond 2nd December).

In line with this disconnect, more than two-thirds (69%) of the public think it is acceptable for public figures to raise questions about the costs and benefits of the second national lockdown. On the other hand, only 20% or respondents think it is not acceptable to raise questions about the merits of the lockdown.

Although lockdowns are generally regarded as an effective strategy for containing the spread of the virus, experts have pointed to their many negative impacts—not only economically, but also on the physical and mental health of the population. Public opinion reflects the difficulty in ascertaining whether a lockdown causes more or less damage than it seeks to prevent. While a plurality thinks the second lockdown is causing less damage than it seeks to prevent, a very substantial minority (34%) thinks that the second lockdown is causing more damage than it seeks to prevent.

The contrast between public opinion in March versus now is stark: after Boris Johnson announced the first nationwide three-week lockdown on 23rd March, 89% of the public approved and only 4% disapproved. At that time, a sizeable segment of the public believed that locking down too late was the main shortcoming of the Government.

One significant reason for this difference between then and now is lockdown fatigue. A strong plurality (48%) of our overall sample expressed agreement with a statement suggesting, “I am suffering from fatigue after so many months of coronavirus restrictions.” Notably, the proportion reporting suffering from ‘lockdown fatigue’ was much higher among those aged 18-34 (63%) than among those aged 65 and above (31%).

The higher rate of fatigue that young people feel about the lockdown corresponds to lower rates of compliance with the coronavirus restrictions. 64% of our overall sample say they have fully followed the lockdown rules since 5th November and a very significant 36% say they have only mostly followed them. Among respondents aged 18-24, nearly half (47%) say they’ve only mostly followed the lockdown rules. Meanwhile, among respondents aged 65 or older, self-reported full compliance is much higher (73%). On the other hand, there are no notable gaps between those who gave their vote in 2019 to the Conservatives (66% claim full compliance) or Labour (62% claim full compliance). These figures suggest that adherence and support for lockdowns is quickly becoming a generational issue in Britain rather than a partisan one.

Interestingly, the overall rates of self-reported full compliance with the rules in mid-October (when the three-tier system was still in place) were very similar, with 66% of the sample reporting full compliance and 34% reporting only partial compliance. However, among the youngest respondents (those aged 18-24), self-reported full compliance with the rules was at 63% under the three-tier system, compared to 53% now under the second lockdown.

The gap between young and old is also noticeable when they are asked about their level of motivation for respecting the lockdown rules now compared to the first lockdown in spring. Whereas 78% of those aged 65 or older say they are equally as motivated to respect the lockdown rules, only 49% of 18-to-24-year-old respondents share this view. Indeed, the youngest respondents were three times more likely than the oldest respondents to say they are less motivated to respect the lockdown rules now than they were in the spring (32% and 11%, respectively). On the other hand, twice as many respondents aged 18-34 (19-20%) as those aged 65 and above (10%) say they are more motivated to respect the rules this time, suggesting that there is still a level of variation (and perhaps even polarisation) in the behaviour of young people.

Likewise, the youngest respondents were more than twice as likely as the oldest respondents to say they are finding it harder to follow the lockdown rules this time compared to the spring lockdown.

Not only has support for lockdowns faltered, but the level of trust in the Government has also declined. After eight months of handling the coronavirus crisis, the UK Government has lost a significant amount of political capital following various scandals and accusations of mishandling or incompetence. After winning a landslide 80-seat majority in Parliament less than a year ago, the Conservative Party is now tied with Labour in voting intention polls. Ever since August, our polling has found that barely a quarter of the British public views the Government as competent, whereas nearly half views it as incompetent. The introduction of both the three-tier system of local lockdowns and of the second nationwide lockdown have done little to alter the general perception that the Government is incompetent, with figures having remained largely constant over the past three months.

The Government’s dismal competency rating is partly explained by our research from late October, which found that 69% of the British public think the Government has failed to set up an effective test and trace system. Likewise, our research found that a further 48% think the Government has failed at improving testing capacity and providing sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) to the NHS. Indeed, as early as May, our research found that approval for Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic dropped from 51% approval at the end of April to only 36% approval in late May.

In addition to the public health impact of the pandemic, both the public and the Government are extremely concerned about the adverse economic impacts of the coronavirus crisis. 70% think the worst of the economic effects of the pandemic are yet to come.

Although it has been suggested that younger generations will be particularly affected by the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, younger respondents aged 18-24 were almost twice (24%) as likely to consider that the worst economic effects of the pandemic are now behind us than older respondents aged 65 or above (13%). However, these figures could also be indicative of how much the younger generations have already suffered economically from coronavirus in comparison to older respondents who might be more sheltered. Indeed, our research in October found that 56% to 58% of respondents aged 18-34 think the younger generations are being asked to make too large a financial sacrifice as a result of lockdowns.

The above results explain why three times more younger respondents than older respondents say they would be more likely to vote for a party that openly advocates against lockdowns. Whereas 27% to 29% of those aged 18-34 say they would be more likely to vote for an anti-lockdown party, only 9-11% of those aged 55 and above say they share this view. Indeed, nearly half (49%) of respondents aged 65 or older say they would be less likely to vote for a party that openly advocates against lockdowns.

Moreover, our research finds that only around a third (36%) of respondents aged 18-24 think the decision to re-enter lockdown was primarily informed by science rather than politics. This lack of trust contrasts sharply with 54% of the overall sample who hold this view, and 64% of those aged 55 or above. In October, our research found that young people were more likely than the general population to be aware of the Great Barrington Declaration, which is a pact created by scientists from Oxford, Harvard, and Stanford that calls for an end to lockdowns. Therefore, the figures suggest that one of reasons why younger people oppose the second lockdown (or at least refuse to comply with its rules fully) may be that they are aware of competing scientific theories that challenge its validity.

Although half of the public (52%) does agree that the Government disclosed sufficient data and advice, a significant minority disagree (22%), while many remain unsure about whether it has (26%). After all, the Prime Minister has faced significant criticism over the accuracy of the data displayed during the press conference in which he announced the second lockdown.

A final contributing factor to the debate on the current lockdown is a recent swing towards optimism when it comes to the future timeline of the coronavirus pandemic. Following the optimism of June, when only 30% of the British public thought the worst of the pandemic was yet to come, the public began to expect a second wave of the pandemic as early as July, when optimism receded and 47% said the worst of the pandemic was yet to come—a sharp rise. Throughout August and early September, expectations remained relatively constant, with 34% to 35% saying the worst was behind us and 39% to 42% saying it was yet to come. However, by mid-September, fear of a second wave began to take hold, and the proportion expecting the worst was yet to come increased rapidly, reaching figures as high as 61% in late October. Nevertheless, in our latest poll, pessimism appears to be subsiding, with less than half (49%) saying that they think the worst still lies ahead––a significant reduction from the 61% who expressed this view less than a month ago.

Recent news surrounding Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine are potentially a reason for this renewed optimism in Great Britain. The discovery of an effective coronavirus vaccine has long been heralded as an event that could bring an end to the pandemic and to the cycle of lockdowns and reopenings. At this point, 43% of respondents agree that the coronavirus crisis will be over by that time next year, compared to the 37% who agreed with this statement in early September.

Two demographic groups were slightly more likely to be optimistic than the overall sample: younger respondents and 2019 Conservative voters. While 46% of those aged 18 to 24 years old and 50% of those aged 25 to 34 years old agreed that the crisis is likely to be over by this time next year, only 37% of respondents above the age of 65 agreed. Likewise, whereas 50% of 2019 Conservative voters agreed with the statement, 40% of Labour voters did. Even so, although comparatively less optimistic, a plurality of both older respondents and 2019 Labour voters also think the coronavirus crisis will be over by this time next year.

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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