UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock recently warned that “a second wave is rolling across Europe,” as the UK continues to add countries to its quarantine list. In the context of rising cases and concerns, Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ latest poll investigated public attitudes towards coronavirus in Italy, Spain and France.
Our poll found that respondents in European countries had different views on where they were with respect to the timeline of the pandemic. While the number of cases in Italy remains far lower than the harrowing heights the country experienced during its lockdown, there has recently been a slight uptick. Two weeks ago, the 1,460 new cases registered marked the sharpest rise since the start of May. Italian respondents were exactly split in our poll, with 39% of respondents believing the worst was behind them and the same amount saying the worst was yet to come. Pessimism has been growing in Italy since June and July, when 25% and 28% (respectively) said the worst was yet to come.
Pessimism is perhaps most to be expected in Spain given that the country’s rise in cases is the sharpest on the whole continent. Spaniards likewise are becoming increasingly pessimistic and at an even more dramatic rate. A majority of 60% of Spaniards believe the worst is yet to come, up from 39% in June.
France also continues to record its highest number of daily cases since the pandemic began. Falling between Spain and Italy in terms of pessimism, 47% of French respondents believe the worst is yet to come. While Spaniards and Italians are becoming increasingly concerned, French respondents are not showing such clear signs of growing pessimism; the proportion that now believes the worst is yet to come is lower than the 56% recorded in July, but higher than the 40% from June.
It is worth noting that testing has largely increased across Europe and may be responsible for some of the rise in cases recorded. Many also note that the rise is more concentrated among younger, asymptomatic carriers, who rarely require hospital treatment or pass away from the disease. Thus far, hospitals have not yet been overwhelmed as they were in late winter and early spring. However, experts warn that the number of cases is now increasing more than the number of tests. In the event of a second wave, anticipation of a second lockdown differs by country: a majority (57%) in Spain, a plurality (46%) in Italy, and only a minority (36%) in France believe another nationwide lockdown is likely.
There is a consensus across all three nations that coronavirus is a threat to be taken seriously. Only minorities (22% in Spain, 23% in Italy, and 27% in France) of respondents claim the virus’ severity has been exaggerated. These proportions have changed little in Spain and Italy, but have risen by five per cent in France since July.
Fear of a second wave appears to have affected the public more so in Spain than in Italy and France. Both experts and the public fear a deadly combination could emerge of cold weather, the return of schools, and the usual winter strains on health services, with exhausted staff, as well as pressure to resume treatments that were suspended during the crisis. Furthermore, there is a possibility of genetic mutations increasing the virus’ lethal potency on populations that are still nowhere near herd immunity.
Compared to Italian and French respondents, Spaniards felt less safe carrying out all but one of the normal activities that we polled, with the exception being taking public transportation. In no activity do Spaniards feel safer today than they did last month. Most notably, the proportion of respondents who now felt unsafe leaving their home at all has risen to a majority (55%).
Although Italians felt safer than Spaniards in all activities besides taking using public transportation, they felt less safe than French respondents in the majority of activities.
Broadly speaking, French respondents felt the safest of the three countries. Compared to last month, they feel safer in over half of the activities. This is in line with the slight increase in scepticism towards the virus’ severity that we noted earlier among the French public, extending into other areas of French politics.
In our previous research, we found support for measures enforcing the wearing of masks and face coverings in Italy, Spain and France. Spaniards’ fears of infection corresponded to higher face mask usage than French and Italians in all locations, besides supermarkets.
Mask regulations have become tighter in Italy over the past months, and are now mandatory at night as well as daytime, and tourists have been forcibly removed from venues for not complying. Despite this, habits have showed little sign of change since earlier in the summer.
Across most locations, Italians broadly fall between the Spanish and French in terms of the numbers consistently wearing masks.
Across all polled activities, French citizens generally wore masks less often than Italians and Spaniards. That said, their usage in all locations has increased since polls from earlier in the summer.
The French public’s lower rates of mask usage can be partially explained by the fact that they are more likely to view their country’s rules and guidelines as confusing compared to other European countries. As authorities try to limit strict lockdown measures to local hotspots, many cities have introduced their own rules that can sometimes deviate from or contradict national guidelines. Although a majority (55%) of French respondents believe the rules regarding face coverings are clear and easy to follow, this is far lower than the 75% and 77% claiming the same in Italy and Spain.
We have found consistent disapproval of French President Emmanuel Macron’s handling of the pandemic among the French public, along with low ratings for Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. On the other hand, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has mostly managed to retain support during the pandemic.
Relatively similar majorities (69% in Italy, 68% in Spain, and 64% in France) believe face masks are an effective tool to combat the spread of coronavirus. While these majorities are only marginally weaker in Italy and Spain than they were last month, it is interesting to note that French respondents are 8 per cent less likely to regard face masks as effective than they were last month. Nonetheless, masks have been mandated in schools and workplaces in France, and riot police are being deployed to enforce them, yet thus far have had little success in stemming the recent rise in cases.
Similarly, and perhaps because of the confusing guidelines on mask usage, French respondents are less likely to feel reassured by others wearing masks. While a strong majority of French respondents (71%) indicated that they felt safer when others around them are wearing masks, this was lower than the 80% recorded in Italy and Spain.
The differences between France and the other two countries in how they perceive masks also manifested itself when respondents were asked about mask usage by staff in hospitality venues: 61% of French respondents said they would be more likely to visit a restaurant or bar if the staff were covering their mouth and nose, compared to 71% of Spaniards and 72% of Italians.
Pessimism regarding the coronavirus situation is growing most rapidly in Spain, which corresponds to its emergence as the European nation with the sharpest rise in coronavirus infections. While there is scientific dispute as to whether this constitutes a second wave (or simply more thorough monitoring of a stable level of cases) anxiety is reflected in growing fears and frequency of mask usage. French and Italian respondents are relatively less concerned but are nonetheless still alarmed. As broader pessimism hangs over the future of the EU economy, the public in these three countries appears realistic about the prospects of a tough winter.