British Public Divided on Government’s Economic Response to Coronavirus

October 24, 2020
R&WS Research Team
Boris Johnson | Coronavirus | Economic Policy | Employment | Personal Finance | Rishi Sunak | Tax | The Economy | UK Government

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On the day that it was announced that the UK’s debt had risen to 103.5% of annual national income, the country’s highest debt-to-GDP ratio since 1960, Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ latest polling in Great Britain assessed public opinion on the economic fallout from coronavirus.

The British public are sharply divided on whether Boris Johnson (and the UK Government in general) have succeeded (40%) or failed (42%) at supporting the UK economy through the coronavirus pandemic.

A strong partisan dimension is evident within responses to this question. The majority (65%) of 2019 Conservative voters say the Government has succeeded in supporting the UK economy, whereas a similarly sized proportion (63%) of 2019 Labour voters believe the Government has failed. Whereas less than a quarter of Labour voters (23%) think the Government has succeeded, a similar proportion of Conservative voters (21%) believe the Government has failed.

Moreover, strong pluralities (46-48%) of those in age brackets between 18-54 years old believe the Government has failed to support the UK economy. By contrast, a majority (51%) of those aged 65 or above think the Government has succeeded. Ultimately, younger people are much more likely to think the Government has failed in this instance than older respondents.

Although a substantial proportion of respondents in Great Britain consider that the UK Government has succeeded in its economic response, some sectors have been hit particularly hard and may require further support. Indeed, shortly following the completion of this poll, Rishi Sunak announced cash grants for businesses in the hospitality, accommodation, and leisure sectors who may be adversely impacted by the restrictions in high-alert level areas. Prior to this announcement, a majority (52%) said that the hospitality industry should receive further financial support from the Government. Around a third (32%) think the tourism industry deserves additional economic help, while 30% say the culture and arts sector does. Only around a fifth believe businesses operating in the aviation industry require more financial help, while just 12% would extend further financial assistance to the car manufacturing industry. On the other hand, 16% consider that none of these sectors should receive additional financial support from the Government.

While costly, the Government’s decision to provide further financial support for hard-hit industries might be a sensible political move that will likely help in its efforts to control the public health crisis. Indeed, before the package was presented, 43% agreed that they would be less likely to support lockdown measures if the Government did not introduce further support for affected businesses and employees, while just 19% disagreed. Around a third (32%) neither agreed nor disagreed.

Significant differentiation between age groups is also evident in responses to this question. For example, majorities (51-60%) of those aged 18-24 years old, 25-34 years old, and 35-44 years old agree that they are less likely to support lockdown measures if the Government does not introduce further support for affected businesses. Meanwhile, a plurality (39%) of those aged 65 or above ‘neither agree nor disagree’ that their support for lockdown will be affected by whether or not the Government introduces further financial support.

Despite the Treasury’s interventions to support struggling industries, the Bank of England has warned that the UK’s jobless rate could peak at 7.5%, and some policymakers believe it could rise even higher. In fact, 9% of the UK’s private sector workforce (two million people) remained on furlough with just ten days remaining of the schemeOverall, a strong plurality (48%) of the British public believe that Boris Johnson and the UK Government have failed to protect jobs at risk as a result of the pandemic. Only around a third (35%) say the Government has succeeded at protecting jobs. A plurality or majority (41%-53%) of all age brackets think the Government has failed in this regard.

While a substantial proportion of the public say the Government has failed to protect jobs, a strong majority (71%) of those who are currently employed think it is likely that they will still be employed by their current employer at this time next year. Nevertheless, 9% think it is unlikely, although it is unclear what proportion of this group believe they will lose their job involuntarily. Moreover, levels of uncertainty remain significant, with 15% saying it is neither likely nor unlikely that they will be employed by their current employer in October 2021.

The self-employed have received a further boost in Rishi Sunak’s latest job package, which included a grant increase from up to £1,875 a month to up to £3,750 a month. Among those who are self-employed, 69% say they are likely to be doing the same type of work at this time next year, whereas just 11% believe it is unlikely.

Nevertheless, those who are currently unemployed are less optimistic about their future job prospects. While a slight plurality (36%) think that it is likely they will be employed by October 2021, a further 29% consider it unlikely, and a quarter (25%) believe it is neither likely nor unlikely.

Shortly after our poll was conducted, Chancellor Rishi Sunak rejected calls to increase the subsidy paid to workers in businesses forced to shut in Tier 3 areas from two thirds of their wage to the 80% paid in the original scheme. The Chancellor’s approach in this regard goes against public opinion: almost half (48%) of the British public say that those who cannot continue working because their region is in Coronavirus Alert Level Tier 3 (Very High) should be given 80% of their wages from the Government, whereas only a third (35%) say they should receive 66% of their wages.

Again, substantial variations can be observed depending on the age of respondents. While those aged 65 or above or between 55-64 are evenly divided on whether the Chancellor should provide 80% or 66% to those who cannot work, clear pluralities or outright majorities (47-53%) of those aged between 18-54 think they should be given 80% of their wages.

Nevertheless, despite Rishi Sunak’s unwillingness to further increase the financial support for those who cannot work due to the new coronavirus restrictions, a clear majority (54%) agree that the Chancellor has made sound financial decisions for the United Kingdom since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Despite public belief that the Prime Minister and the Government have failed in several aspects of their coronavirus response, only 13% disagree that Rishi Sunak has made sound financial decisions during the pandemic.

Widespread support for Rishi Sunak’s performance is evidenced by the fact that a strong plurality (43%) of 2019 Labour voters agree that Rishi Sunak has made sound financial decisions, while only a fifth (20%) think he has not. Moreover, a majority across all age brackets (52-64%) agree that the Chancellor has made sound financial decisions.

According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, the government will have to borrow £372 billion during the current financial year. Furthermore, this figure does not include money which will be required to support the large-scale changes to the Job Support Scheme announced by the Chancellor on 22 October. In this context, a majority (51%) would favour a reduction in taxes in order to encourage economic growth and employment, compared to only 27% who would favour an increase in taxes in order to pay back the Government’s additional spending. The public may hold the view that increasing taxation will discourage taxed activities, such as work and investment, and could actually reduce total tax revenue. Alternatively, it may be the case that the public is generally against paying more in personal taxation, a conclusion that would align with our findings from earlier this month.

Although the majority of the British public would prefer reduced taxes rather than increased taxes, there is support for increased taxation in some instances. Indeed, a clear plurality (43%) would favour an increase in the higher rate of income tax, while 40% would support increasing corporation tax. Nevertheless, less than a fifth would approve of an increase in the basic rate of income tax (19%) or an increase to national insurance contributions (18%). Ultimately, less than a fifth (19%) would favour none of the aforementioned tax increases.

While the financial consequences of coronavirus have been significant for some sectors and individuals, a clear majority (55%) think that their personal financial situation has stayed more or less the same. A further fifth (18%) say that although their financial situation was somewhat negatively impacted, this was only a short-term issue. Nevertheless, 14% say that their financial situation has been quite negatively impacted, and 4% say their financial situation has become dire. Interestingly, around a tenth (9%) say their financial situation actually improved.

Older respondents are substantially less likely to have been financially impacted by coronavirus. Among those aged 65 or older, 86% say their financial situation remained the same or improved. In comparison, only 63% of 18-24 year olds and 51% of 25-34 year olds have experienced no negative impact to their financial situation. Moreover, male respondents (29%) were much less likely to report having been negatively impacted financially during the coronavirus pandemic than female respondents (40%). Ultimately, the extent of financial damage caused by coronavirus has varied significantly depending on the demographic group.

Overall, the public in Great Britain is split on whether the Government’s economic response to coronavirus has succeeded or failed. Interestingly, while the public continue to have trust in Rishi Sunak’s decision-making, a strong plurality think that Boris Johnson and the UK Government as a whole have failed to protect jobs.

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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