British Public Remains Fearful of Coronavirus, Pessimistic about Future, and Expect Lockdown to Continue

November 23, 2020
R&WS Research Team
Coronavirus | Coronavirus Lockdown Measures | Coronavirus Restrictions | Coronavirus Testing | Health
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A Pessimistic Country

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that the increase in new coronavirus infections may be slowing down. Although hospital admissions are below the levels seen in the spring, they remain high in some regions of the country, and the coronavirus deaths seven-day average remains above 400. In the context of this mixed picture, pessimism has increased last week: a majority (52%) now say that the worst of the pandemic is yet to come in the UK, compared to 49% a week ago. Conversely, the proportion who think the worst is behind us decreased by three points to 27%.

Those who voted Conservative in 2019 are significantly more optimistic about the future direction of the pandemic than those who supported Labour. Overall, 36% of Conservative voters say the worst is behind us, whereas only 20% of Labour voters hold this view. Likewise, lower income households are slightly less optimistic than higher income households: only 21% of respondents whose annual household income for 2019 fell between £0 and £20,000 think the worst is behind us, compared to 31% of respondents from households who earned between £40,000 and £60,000.

Rising pessimism is also reflected in a six-point decline in the proportion of respondents who agree that the coronavirus crisis will likely be over by this time next year. Currently, only 37% agree that the pandemic will be over by November 2021, while 31% disagree, and 24% are on the fence.

Male respondents (41%) are more likely to agree that the coronavirus crisis will be over by this time next year than female respondents (33%). Again, the data provides further evidence that lower income households are more pessimistic about the trajectory of the coronavirus: those from the households where income was between £0 and £20,000 in 2019 are the only income bracket where a plurality disagree that the coronavirus crisis will likely be over this time next year.

Understanding the Second Wave

Meanwhile, a majority (51%) of respondents consider that the second rise in cases of coronavirus was inevitable. Nevertheless, a significant minority (40%) say the second rise in cases could have been avoided.

However, responses to this question are influenced by political views. A strong majority (61%) of 2019 Conservative voters believe the second rise in cases was inevitable, whereas a majority (50%) of 2019 Labour voters say that the second rise could have been avoided. It is likely that Conservative voters are more inclined to hold a view where the Government is not to blame, whereas Labour supporters find fault in the Government’s policies aimed at tackling the spread of the pandemic.

Fear of the Virus

When it comes to being actively scared of contracting coronavirus when going outside, the British public is split in half: 46% are scared and 45% are not. When looking at the results by gender, a greater degree of concern is noticeable among female respondents, 50% of whom are actively scared compared to 41% who are not. Among male respondents, only 41% are actively scared whereas 50% are not.

A majority of respondents over the age of 65 (51%) are not actively scared of contracting the virus when they go outside, unlike a majority of those aged 45-54 (50%). These results are possibly explained by how many respondents aged 45-54 continue to work in-person, therefore exposing themselves more to the virus than respondents who might be retired and only need to leave their house sporadically for shopping or exercise. Indeed, our numbers show that 49% of respondents who are employed and working are worried about contracting the virus when they go outside compared to only 39% of those who are retired.

Finally, responses to this question also revealed a social class dimension, with a majority of those who identify as working class saying they feel actively scared, compared to a majority of those who identify as middle class and say they are not actively scared. As with age, the social class differential is likely connected to the types of occupations that respondents have, with working class respondents being less likely to be able to work remotely from home than those in positions typically associated with the middle class.

A plurality (46%) of the British public would be “very” or “extremely” worried about their health if they contracted coronavirus, and they fear it would have a severe effect on their health or that they could lose their life. 33% of the public would only be “somewhat” worried if they caught coronavirus, although they think the experience would be very unpleasant. At the other end of the spectrum, 21% say they would not be worried if they caught coronavirus (or they would “mostly” not be worried).    

The varying impact that coronavirus typically has on different age groups is reflected in the level of concern they each express. Whereas only 28% of those 18-24 would be “very” or “extremely” worried about their health if they caught the virus, 65% of those aged 65 or above would have that level of concern. Notably, 8% of those aged 65 or above say they would not be worried at all (or would “mostly” not be worried) if they caught the virus.

Since March, there has been a clear increase in the level of concern people would feel for their own personal health if they caught coronavirus. Back then, only 33% said they would be “very” or “extremely” worried, a figure that has now risen to 46%. The sharpest increase in the level of fear has been among those aged 65 and above, only 40% of whom said they would be “very” or “extremely” worried in March (the figure is now 65%). Meanwhile, there has been little change in the proportion of 18-to-24-year olds who would feel “very” or “extremely” worried (26% in March and 28% in November). At the other end of the spectrum, the proportion of 18-to-24-year olds who would not be worried if they caught the virus has increased slightly (34% in March and 40% now).

Criticism of the Lockdown

An increasing proportion of the public believes that the lockdown was primarily determined by politics rather than science. Currently, over a third (36%) say the lockdown was determined by politics—an increase of five points since last week. 50% say that the lockdown was determined primarily by science, a decrease of 4%. The main dividing line for this question was politics, with 65% of 2019 Conservative voters saying the decision to lock down was guided primarily by science, a view shared by only 40% of those who voted for Labour. 

Scepticism among young people in regard to the Government’s response to coronavirus is likely related to their belief that younger generations are being asked to make too large a financial sacrifice as a result of lockdowns.

As pessimism rises once again and people come to view an extension of lockdown as more likely, tolerance for those who oppose lockdown appears to have declined slightly last week. Whereas last week we saw 69% agree that it is acceptable for public figures to raise questions about the costs and benefits of the current lockdown, only 64% expressed the same view last week—a decline of five points.

Whereas the proportion who say they would be more likely to vote for a party that openly advocates against lockdowns has remained constant since last week (17-18%), the proportion who would be less likely to vote for an anti-lockdown party has increased slightly from 32% to 35%. Across both weeks, the plurality would be neither more nor less likely to vote for a party on the basis of its stance on lockdowns.

Interestingly, a greater proportion of Conservative voters say they would be less likely to vote for an anti-lockdown party (39%) than Labour voters (30%), which could once again be a reflection of the average age of the voters of each party. Indeed, 51% of those aged 65 or above say they would be less likely to vote for a party if it openly advocated against lockdowns.

Worsening Financial Situation

Although nearly half of British respondents (49%) think their financial situation will stay the same in the next three months, almost a third (31%) expect theirs to worsen, and only 11% expect an improvement. However, future perceptions of financial stability vary considerably based on age: only a third of those aged between 18-34 think that their financial situation will remain stable over the next three months, which contrasts starkly with the 64% of those aged 65 or above who feel this way.

Those who self-identify as working class are somewhat more likely (34%) to expect their personal finances to worsen in the next three months than those who describe themselves as middle class (28%). Over a third (34%) of those living in a household which had an income of less than £20,000 last year think their financial situation will worsen, the highest proportion of any income bracket.

Indeed, two thirds (66%) of the British public think that the worst is yet to come with respect to the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. However, the proportion who think the worst is yet to come has paradoxically declined by 4% compared to last week.

Labour voters are more pessimistic about the future of the economy than Conservative voters: 70% of Labour voters think the worst is yet to come with respects to the economic effects of the coronavirus, compared to 61% of Conservative voters. Respondents aged 18-34 are much more likely to consider that the economic worst behind us (24-26%) than respondents aged 55 or above (11%), although as we have highlighted previously, this likely reflects the fact that younger people have already suffered economically from coronavirus in comparison to older respondents who might be more financially sheltered by their pensions.

Have the Young or the Old Suffered the Most From the Coronavirus Crisis?

The generational divide manifests itself again when we ask respondents which age group has suffered the most this year from the coronavirus crisis. Whereas majorities of those aged 45 and above (51-56%) think the 65+ age group has suffered the most, only 24% of those aged 18-24 feel this way. By contrast, a plurality (33%) of those in the youngest age group (18-24) think they have been the one to suffer the most.

However, the curve for the generational divide is rather steep: a plurality (33%) of 25-to-34-year-olds think those aged 65+ have suffered the most from the crisis, rising to 40% among those aged 35-to-44 and a majority (51%) of those in the 45-54 age group. 18-to-24-year-olds and those over 65 are the only groups that think their own age group has suffered the most from the crisis, while pluralities in the other age groups acknowledge that the virus has taken the greatest toll on those over 65. 

Young People Breaking the Rules

The 18-24 age group is the only one where a majority of respondents say they have not followed the lockdown rules in full since they were imposed on 5th November. For all other year groups, majorities (56-71%) say they have fully followed the rules of lockdown. Interestingly, the age group most likely to claim full compliance is the 45-54 years old bracket, with full compliance then falling slightly to 64% among those aged 55 or above.

Overall, male and female respondents were equally as likely as each other to claim they have followed the lockdown rules fully, and there was only a minimal difference between 2019 Conservative and Labour voters. Although Conservative voters were slightly more like to claim full compliance, this difference is most likely a reflection of the average Conservative voter being older than the average Labour voter. There were no clear differences on the basis of social class either, with 61% of both self-identifying working class and middle class respondents claiming to have fully adhered to the lockdown rules.

Police Enforcement

A clear plurality of the British public (44%) thinks the police’s measures to enforce lockdown have not been enough, while a further 31% think they have been about right. Only 12% of respondents consider that the measures used so far have been excessive.

There is little variation in responses on the basis of age, with 47% of those aged 18-24 saying that the police’s measures to enforce lockdown have not been enough—a view shared by a very similar proportion (44%) of those aged 65 and above. Likewise, this question sees little variation on the basis of politics, with similar proportions of 2019 Conservative and Labour voters respectively thinking the measures have been excessive, about right, or not enough. If anything, Labour voters are slightly more likely to believe the measures have been excessive (15%) than Conservative voters (11%).

The perception of lax enforcement corresponds with a majority of respondents thinking it is unlikely they would get caught if they broke coronavirus restrictions, highlighting that those who abide by them are doing so out of a sense of responsibility or fear of catching the virus, as opposed to fear of being caught by the authorities. Our research finds that only 20% of respondents consider it likely they would get caught if they broke coronavirus restrictions, compared to a majority who consider it unlikely.

The youngest of respondents are the most likely to think they can get away with breaking coronavirus restriction laws: 60% consider it unlikely they would get caught, compared to 46% of those aged 65 or above.  It is very possible that these results are the product of a cycle in which younger respondents were initially more likely to break the rules (since they feel less worried about their health if they were to catch the virus), therefore they proceed to break the rules, they realise that no enforcement action was taken against them, and then they find themselves breaking the rules increasingly more often in a feedback loop of non-compliance. They may also know others who have broken the rules without any consequences.

The class dimension of rule-breaking is also noteworthy, with those who identify as middle class being ten percent more likely to think they can get away with breaking lockdown rules than those who identify as working class (57% and 47%, respectively). These figures reinforce the perception of roughly a third of respondents (31%) that the police is not treating members of the public equally in their enforcement of the rules. On the other hand, a small plurality (38%) does think the police is being equitable in its enforcement of the rules.

Even though those who self-identify as working class and middle class were equally as likely to think the police has not treated members of the public equally (31% for both), those who voted for Labour in 2019 were significantly more likely to think the police has failed to treat members of the public equally (38%) than those who voted Conservative (24%).

Working from Home

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, our team has monitored public attitudes about working from home. The proportion who say they have been working from home during the coronavirus pandemic has remained remarkably stable. At this stage, 60% say they have been working from home, compared to 59% at the start of September, and 61% in late July.

However, less than half (48%) of those who identify as working class have been working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, compared to the overwhelming majority (72%) of those who say they are middle class. Furthermore, working from home is also much more common among higher income brackets: only 49-52% of those whose household income was between £0 and 40,000 in 2019 have been working from home, compared to 67% of those whose household earned £40,000-£80,000 last year. These findings underscore that working from home has been a lifestyle shift which has disproportionately affected those from higher income brackets and those who identify as middle class.

Half (50%) of respondents who have been working from home during the coronavirus pandemic think they have been more productive. Only 15% believe they have been less productive working from home, while a third (33%) say they have been neither more nor less productive. The proportion who consider themselves more productive working from home has declined by 7% since July.

Re-introduction of the Furlough Scheme

Earlier this month, Chancellor Rishi Sunak extended the furlough scheme to the end of March 2021. The scheme has reverted to its original model, with the Government paying up to 80% of a person’s wages up to £2,500 a month.

Among those who are currently on furlough, a majority (59%) had been taken off the scheme before being placed back on the programme. Only 41% of those who are now on furlough have only been on furlough once. This finding provides strong evidence that many employers were attempting to bring their employees back to work before the second wave of the pandemic hit and the scheme had to be revived.

Indeed, a plurality (42%) of those currently on furlough say they have been on their current furlough only since November, providing further evidence that businesses are making use of the Chancellor’s decision to bring the scheme back to its original form from the spring. On the other hand, 25% of those currently on furlough say they have been on furlough since March and April, which represents nearly a full year away from their workplace. Given the limited number of respondents who fall in this subsample, we urge caution when drawing conclusions from the responses to this question.

The End of the Lockdown (Prior to Weekend Announcement)

The current lockdown measures in England will be changed to regional, tiered restrictions on 2nd December. Whereas nearly two weeks ago a plurality of respondents (41%) said the lockdown should end on or before 2nd December, last week the results reversed and a plurality (45%) now say that lockdown should continue beyond that date. Despite our results generally highlighting that younger people are more sceptical of lockdown rules and more likely to break them, the more recent results to this question now show that there are sharp divisions of opinion about lockdown even among the young, with 41% of those aged 18-24 saying lockdown should end on 2nd December and 40% saying it should continue after that date.

Despite the significant increase last week in the proportion who think the current lockdown should be extended, there have been no major changes in whether people think the lockdown will actually end. Whereas previously 53% said the most likely scenario is that lockdown gets extended, 50% expressed the same view last week, which represents a relatively minor change.

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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