British Public Agrees Government Reacted Slowly to Pandemic, But So Far Does Not Place Blame on Scientific Advisers

June 1, 2021
By The Redfield & Wilton Strategies Research Team
Coronavirus | Coronavirus Lockdown Measures
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During Dominic Cummings’ recent seven-hour testimony in Parliament, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser severely criticised the Government’s handling of the early stages of the coronavirus crisis—criticism he also reiterated in a scathing Twitter thread.

Our latest research finds that 73% of British respondents say are aware of what Dominic Cummings has said recently about the Government’s handling of the pandemic, with 14% saying they have heard a great deal, 31% saying they have heard quite a lot, and 28% saying they have heard some about it. These figures indicate significant levels of public attention, with a comparatively small proportion of 28% of respondents saying they have heard very little.

In light of the conversation generated by Cummings’ testimony, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies asked the British public about their own views on the Government’s handling of the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. Overall, we find that, like Dominic Cummings, large majorities of respondents are critical of the Government’s early response to the coronavirus outbreak and think the Government reacted too slowly. However, unlike Dominic Cummings, the public so far attributes little blame for this early reaction to the chief public health officials advising the UK Government, instead assigning most of the responsibility to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet.

Looking at the public’s evaluation of the Government’s handling of the pandemic overall—from its early stages up until today—a slight plurality (48%) of the public now thinks the Government has handled the coronavirus crisis well, while 44% of respondents think it has handled the coronavirus crisis badly. While pluralities viewed the Government’s handling of the crisis in a negative light for most of last year, the successful rollout of the UK’s vaccination programme—with regards to which 75% of respondents agree the Government did a good job—has likely played a crucial role in bringing about this more positive view of the Government’s overall handling of the pandemic.

Population Sampled: Eligible Voters in Great Britain
Date of Latest Poll: 31 May 2021 | Most Recent Sample Size: 2,000

The public continues to hold a more negative view of the Government’s response to the pandemic in its early stages. Despite the UK ranking second out of 195 countries in the Global Health Security Index measuring countries’ health security capabilities, including pandemic preparedness, 40% of members of the public, with the benefit of hindsight, think the Government did a bad job at preparing for the possibility of a pandemic in the years before it actually happened, compared to 28% who think the Government did a good job at preparing for this possibility. Meanwhile, 26% think the Government did neither a good nor bad job.

Furthermore, almost half (49%) of the public thinks the Government did a bad job in reacting quickly when the pandemic first arose—including a quarter (26%) of respondents who think the Government did a very bad job in this regard. Conversely, 28% think the Government did a good job, and 20% think it did neither a good nor a bad job.

In line with such views, our research shows that 67% of respondents think that an earlier, aggressive reaction to the coronavirus pandemic would have reduced the number of cases and deaths the UK experienced. By contrast, 22% think an earlier, aggressive reaction would have made no difference, and 3% even think it would have increased the number of cases and deaths the UK experienced. 8% say they don’t know.

More than three quarters (77%) of the public agree with a statement suggesting that the UK Government was too slow to lock down at the start of the pandemic—including 42% who agree strongly. This criticism transcends party lines, with 72% of 2019 Conservative voters and 84% of 2019 Labour voters saying the Government was too slow to lock down. Only 8% disagree, and 13% think the Government was neither too slow nor too fast in its imposition of a national lockdown.

Our research also finds that more than half (52%) of respondents do remember ‘herd immunity’ as being the initial intended outcome of the Government’s coronavirus response planning, in spite of recent claims to the contrary made by prominent Government figures such as Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Home Secretary Priti Patel. Overall, these figures suggest that a majority of voters still recall enough instances in early 2020 where ‘herd immunity’ was defended as a strategy, including by the Government’s scientific advisers such as Patrick Vallance.

Strangely, however, when it comes to the public’s views on the reason for the Government’s slowness in imposing a lockdown, two thirds (65%) of respondents who agree that the Government was too slow to lockdown think that this delay was because the Government ignored the advice of scientific advisers who advocated in favour of a lockdown. Only a fifth (19%) of respondents think the Government’s scientific advisers initially advised against a lockdown and that the Government followed this advice (which is what actually happened). 16% say they don’t know.

Nearly two months ago, we found a majority of all respondents (56%) also saying roughly the same to a similar, but slightly differently worded question.

Similarly, almost half (49%) of respondents mistakenly suggest that the Government’s scientific advisers advised the public to wear a face mask covering their mouth and nose, and that this advice was mostly not followed in the UK in the early days of the pandemic. A much lower proportion (36%) of respondents correctly recall that the initial advice was not to wear a face mask, advice that most in the UK did follow at the time.

By consequence, our findings thus suggest that the public is unlikely to see the Government’s scientific advisers as being at fault for the shortcomings in the UK’s initial coronavirus response—even though, as Dominic Cummings and others, such as Niall Ferguson, believe the public perhaps should do so. This mirrors findings from as early as May 2020, and again a year later, when strong majorities of members of the public, prompted with the following two options, selected that the pandemic was initially allowed to spread so severely in the UK because the scientific advice given to the government was not followed rather than wrong. In fact, this belief has only grown stronger over time: whereas 54% of respondents thought so in May 2020, a year later 68% adopted the view that the coronavirus pandemic was allowed to spread so severely in the UK because the Government did not follow the initial scientific advice it received.

While Cummings has blamed senior civil servants as much as he has blamed Boris Johnson and his Government at his hearing and on Twitter, our research shows that the public adopts a different view: 60% of respondents—including 51% of 2019 Conservative voters and 74% of 2019 Labour voters—see Number 10 and Government Ministers as primarily responsible for the failures of the Governments coronavirus crisis response. Only 14% of respondents think that Whitehall and the Chief Civil Servants are primarily to blame. At the same time, a significant 26% say they don’t know who is primarily responsible.

In terms of transparency, a plurality (40%) of respondents agree that the Government has been transparent about how it reached the decisions it took during the coronavirus pandemic, while a significant 32% disagree and 25% neither agree nor disagree. At the same time, mirroring Cummings’ critique that Government secrecy contributed to the shortcomings in the UK’s coronavirus response, more than half (51%) of respondents think it would have been best for the Government to make its internal decision-making process public, to allow for greater public scrutiny. Conversely, 33% think it would have been best for the Government to keep its internal decision-making process confidential, to avoid confusing the public, and 16% say they don’t know.

Looking beyond the very early stages of the pandemic towards the summer of 2020, Dominic Cummings has claimed the two later lockdowns could have been avoided. Our research finds that the public largely agrees with this criticism: 57% of respondents believe the second and third lockdowns in the United Kingdom could have been avoided with better pre-emptive action during the summer of 2020. By contrast, 33% think the second and third lockdown in the United Kingdom could not have been avoided, regardless of any pre-emptive action during the summer of 2020.

When it comes to the public’s views on the Government’s efforts to set up the necessary infrastructure to deal with the spread of coronavirus, we find that respondents are slightly more split. Amidst claims made by Cummings that the UK’s Test-and-Trace system was delayed due to testing targets set by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, for instance, we find that 39% of Britons think the Government did a bad job in implementing the UK’s contact tracing system, while 36% of respondents think it did a good job. 22% say it did neither a good nor a bad job.

Evaluations are more positive where the UK’s nationwide testing programme is concerned. 46% of respondents think the Government did a good job at launching a successful nationwide testing programme, as opposed to 29% who think the Government did a bad job and 24% who think it did neither a good nor a bad job.

Moreover, whereas Dominic Cummings has argued that vaccine trials and approval should have taken place much earlier than they did, we find that the public does not yet hold this point of view. In fact, 63% of respondents think the Government trialled and approved coronavirus vaccines at the right pace. 15% think the vaccines were trialled and approved them too quickly, while only 14% think the Government trialled and approved vaccines too slowly—a likely consequence of the fact that the United Kingdom was faster than its neighbours, the EU, and, indeed, faster than most countries in the world in approving the vaccines.

Overall, our research thus finds that significant parts of the public agree with Dominic Cummings’ critique of the Government’s handling of the early stages of the pandemic in the UK. Most notably, respondents think the Government was too slow to respond and too lax in the measures it adopted to contain the spread of coronavirus during the early stages of this public health crisis. Our research however finds that the public is most likely to attribute responsibility for such failures to the Government itself, indicating an unusual degree of trust in the scientists advising the Government than the politicians who decided to follow their advice. In line with the public’s critical stance towards the Government’s handling of the early stages of the pandemic, we also find that a majority is supportive of a public inquiry into the Government’s coronavirus response—although the British public is unsure how effective this inquiry will be.

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.

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