It has been nearly three weeks since Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown. When this measure was originally announced, we saw widespread approval among members of the public for this decision. The next questions for policymakers now, however, are when and how to end it. The current lockdown measure was originally intended to end this coming Monday, but this expiration date has always looked likely to be extended. For how much longer will it be extended? At what point will the Government and, more importantly, the public think it is safe to ease restrictions?
When we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies originally polled respondents in Great Britain about how much longer they would be willing to tolerate the current measures, 76% of respondents said they could handle, at least, a month’s extension beyond its current expiration date on the 14th of April, including 45% who said they would take on however much longer the government deemed necessary, even if it is longer than two months. One week later, on our latest poll of 2,000 completed on 8 April, 5% more respondents were willing to allow a month’s extension to the current shutdown measures––perhaps in recognition of how severe the pandemic in remains the UK.
In fact, when it came to predicting when they thought the current lockdown would end, 66% of participants in our Wednesday poll predicted that it would end, at the earliest, by the end of May, including 16% who believed it would last beyond the end of June.
A critical aspect of easing the current restrictions will be testing capacity. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has promised that the UK will be conducing 100,000 tests per day by the end of April. Yet, respondents to our poll did not think this goal was realistic: 58% thought the Government would fail to achieve this capacity in this time, while 30% thought the Government would either meet or exceed this goal.
If the Government is unable to expand testing capacity significantly, its ability to know where the virus needs to be contained and where people would be allowed to return to a somewhat more normal life will be seriously undermined. 2% of respondents to our poll said they had not been tested for coronavirus but had tried to do so.
Testing is important as, after all, 16% of the respondents to our poll who had not been tested for coronavirus (n = 1919), think they have had coronavirus already or have it now.
Such numbers may seem wide off the mark, but how can policymakers know for sure? One Oxford study recently suggested a substantial portion of the British population may already have had the virus. Given such a potential prevalence of the virus, the only solution will be to test.
One significant aspect of this pessimism surrounding testing has been the news that test kits ordered from China apparently do not work. When respondents were asked what the United Kingdom should do in response, a majority agreed to a statement saying a moratorium should be put in place on purchases of medical equipment from China.
Such news may dash our hopes for now and may anger the UK public. Nevertheless, placing a moratorium may be something that is not an option for the United Kingdom during this crisis.
Even so, if the UK is able to overcome the current difficulties and develop, for instance, an antibody test, which would show immunity among members of the public, a majority of respondents to our poll agreed that those who are proven to be immune should be allowed to return to their normal lives while others stay at home.
This solution would be complicated and potentially disastrous. For what about the rest of the population? Would they be willing to be forced to stay at home while others ‘lucky’ enough to have had the virus already go on to their normal lives?
Provocatively, we asked respondents whether, in such a scenario where those shown to immune are given a greater degree of freedom to go out, they themselves would be willing to get themselves infected with the virus.
And, sure enough, a large enough share of respondents said they would be willing to do so such that this policy would likely be unfeasible: the greater risks to the public would simply not be worth it.
Another solution, contract tracing has been widely touted as a potential way out of the shutdown, especially given its successful application in places like South Korea. Such a method would require people giving the government extensive access to their mobile phone data and credit card records such that government officials can locate who has been in touch with or in the area of a known case of a coronavirus. When asked whether they would be willing to share their own data to make such a policy feasible, 49%––only 49%––of the public said yes.
Whether the UK Government, which has so far touted a voluntary app, will therefore be able to implement such an intrusive form of control over the population (and therefore over the spread of the virus) remains to be seen. Much of it will depend on whether members of the public realise it is their own privacy which is being intruded upon.
The answer to the question of how and when to end the shutdown depends on the defined purpose of this shutdown. Is the shutdown intended to slow the spread of the virus as it gradually infects a majority of the population? Or is it intended to completely halt the spread of the virus such that the virus is essentially eradicated within the borders of the United Kingdom? Governments across the world which have implemented shutdown measures have not been clear in this respect––perhaps, in part, because they have not yet decided upon an answer themselves.
Different answers to this question will elicit different solutions to ending the shutdown.
Outright eradication would require as strict as possible a shutdown for a certain duration of time, such that every carrier of the virus could only pass on the virus onto other members of their households. After the allotted amount of time has passed, even those living in infected households would no longer be contagious. Such a solution would then require that the border of the United Kingdom remain shut or open exclusively to other countries which have also effectively eradicated the virus until a vaccine has been found.
Slowing the spread of the virus, on the other hand, would allow for an easing of restrictions but on certain terms: members of the public may be required to wear masks, restaurants and bars may remain closed and the threat of the virus would loom large for a longer period of time. Life would not return to ‘normal’ until a potential vaccine has been found.
Respondents to our poll seemed, largely, to think that the purpose of the shutdown was simply to slow the spread while a majority of the UK population is gradually infected with the virus. Only somewhat more than a quarter of respondents believed that the end goal of the shutdown was the eradication or almost eradication of the virus.
The nuance of this question may have been lost on some respondents. In the future, we at Redfield & Wilton will seek to ask in varying forms how members of the public understand the current strategy of the Government as it seeks to solve this crisis. The better the public understands what the Government is trying to do, the better they themselves can cooperate and the sooner life may return to ‘normal’ again.
This poll is part of Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ ongoing research into public opinion on the coronavirus outbreak and government’s reaction to the crisis. Further results from our polling in the UK, USA, Italy, France, Spain and Germany is featured here.