Majority of British Public Wants More Restrictive Coronavirus Rules, Yet Will Not Commit to Following Them

October 23, 2020
R&WS Research Team
Coronavirus | Coronavirus Lockdown Measures | Coronavirus Restrictions | Health | UK Government

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In the wake of rising coronavirus case numbers across the UK, the Government announced a new coronavirus ‘tier system’ that will adopt restrictions on a local level in an attempt to quell new outbreaks. Yet the imposition of restrictions on a local level has generated friction between local leaders and Westminster, and has led to confusion about what the rules are in place in each part of the UK, with many calling the Government’s new virus-suppression tactics into question.

Despite new attempts to tackle the virus, almost half (49%) of the British public do not think the UK Government is taking the right measures to address the pandemic. Only 35% think the Government is taking the right steps. In London—which was recently elevated to ‘Tier 2’, adding more restrictions—less than a third (29%) think the Government is taking the right measures, while the majority (58%) do not think it is taking the right steps.

The ‘tier system’ formalizes the Government’s shift in approach from national lockdowns to local lockdowns, and restrictions now vary significantly by region. While the public do not think the Government is taking the right steps to combat the virus, they are split on whether they would like to see tighter coronavirus restrictions in their own area, with 44% saying they would and 42% saying they would not.

The new three-tier system requires the cooperation of local leaders and residents. With restrictions varying significantly from city to city, residents must not only be aware of the restrictions but also comply with them. Yet a third (34%) say they have mostly (rather than fully) adhered to the rules in their local area, while two-thirds (66%) do say they have fully adhered to the rules. While most respondents claim to have stuck to all of the rules, restrictions placed using the tier systems are legally enforceable, and therefore, by not sticking to the rules in their entirety, a third are admitting to breaking the law in some form. Furthermore, the power of the local lockdown is undermined if a significant portion of the population in the locality do not stick to the lockdown and risk spreading the virus to areas outside.

Older age groups are slightly more likely to have fully adhered to the rules: 73% of those over 65 have adhered fully, compared to 63% of 18-to-24 year-olds. Nevertheless, a sizeable minority in each age group concede that they are not obeying the rules in their entirety. Furthermore, again, there are slight regional differences. 58% of respondents in the North East say they fully stick to the local restriction rules, the lowest of any of the regions polled.

In the capital—which was recently designated a Tier 2 COVID alert level—a significant minority (30%) say they will mostly follow the new rules, whereas 62% say they will fully adhere to the new rules. Less than half (46%) of 18-to-24-year-olds say they will fully follow the new rules.

Nevertheless, while a sizeable minority of the public are not sticking to all of the rules, the majority (55%) of the British public think regulations should be more restrictive, even at the risk of damage to the economy; on the other hand, a quarter (24%) think regulations should be less restrictive, even at the risk of increasing the number of cases of coronavirus. The public are split on whether they want to see tighter restrictions in their own area, but clearly favour tighter regulations nationally, which encapsulates the difficulty of such a localised strategy: the public may be supportive of more restrictive measures, until the rules are imposed on them but not on the population of other areas.

Although the Government currently favours a local approach to tackling the pandemic, there have been calls for a two-week national “circuit breaker” lockdown designed to quash the spreading of the virus by implementing harsh restrictions across the entire country. The majority (55%) of the British public would support a circuit breaker lockdown, even if the Government does not promise that it would not be repeated. Less than a fifth (17%) would oppose such a lockdown.

While Keir Starmer has pushed to Government to implement a “circuit-breaker” lockdown, public support for such a measure is equally as high among those who voted Conservative in the 2019 election (57%) and those who voted Labour (58%), indicating that the Labour Leader’s proposal may be a smart political move which could endear him to voters from both major parties.

Moreover, half (48%) of the British public think a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown should begin immediately if it is to be implemented, while 15% think it should begin in a few weeks. Just a fifth (19%) do not think a nationwide lockdown should be introduced at all.

The popularity of a “circuit breaker” lockdown may be because a plurality (41%) believe that, if it were imposed, the lockdown would be likely to end after two or three weeks, as planned. On the other hand, 35% think it is unlikely that the lockdown would actually end when planned. Support for the “circuit breaker” lockdown rests on the argument that a national shutdown of a few weeks will overall reduce cases enough to spend less time in a lockdown in the long run. Yet if that lockdown goes beyond two or three weeks, the argument that this type of lockdown will reduce the need for a long-term national lockdown seems dubious. After all, the national lockdown introduced in March was initially sanctioned for 3 weeks.

There is a growing pessimism about the timeline of the coronavirus pandemic in general; now, less than a fifth (18%) think the worst of the pandemic is behind us—the lowest level of optimism polled for this question thus far—while 61% think the worst is yet to come. Ultimately, the Government’s implementation of new coronavirus restrictions has not dispelled pessimism about the future and may have increased it.

Only a quarter (24%) of the British public think the current Government is competent, while a strong plurality (43%) think the current Government is incompetent and 27% think the current Government is neither competent nor incompetent. The public have been sceptical of the Government’s capabilities since the start of the pandemic: in our previous polling, only 24-28% have considered the Government was competent. Despite the vast array of measures that have been implemented by the Government within the past few months, the public perception that the Government is incompetent has been relatively consistent.

As our analysis has regularly highlighted, the Government’s negative Net Competency Rating is directly correlated with public perceptions on how they have handled the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, our latest polling shows that a significant proportion of the public believe that Boris Johnson (and the UK Government in general) have failed in a wide range of aspects of their response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In particular, more than two-thirds (69%) say that Boris Johnson and the UK Government have failed to establish an effective track and trace system, while 59% believe that the Prime Minister and the Government have failed to keep the country together in spirit. Moreover, clear pluralities (47-48%) believe the Government has failed to expand testing capacity, protect jobs at risk from the pandemic, provide the NHS with sufficient personal protective equipment, determine the right level of coronavirus restrictions in local areas, and effectively shelter vulnerable populations. While the public is more evenly split on whether the Government has succeeded or failed to protect the NHS and support the economy, the overall public perception of the Government’s actions is negative.

A key aspect of the restrictions for areas under “Tier 2” is a ban on different households mixing indoors. Individuals who live in separate residences will no longer be able to meet inside for a meal or drink, and therefore outdoor socialisation may remain common, despite the changing weather. Currently, half (50%) of the public would feel safe eating at a restaurant or drinking at a pub outside.

There has been no tangible shift in how safe people feel in outdoor hospitality venues: in September, 49% felt safe eating or drinking at a pub or restaurant outdoors, while 53% held this view in August. Overall, despite rising coronavirus cases across the UK, the public’s personal concern for their safety in this setting has not changed. Moreover, despite their increased susceptibility to severe cases of coronavirus, older people aged 65 or above are just as likely to feel safe (52%) drinking or eating outside as any other age bracket (45-51%).

Recently, a top advisor to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon dismissed hopes of large family gatherings at Christmas as “fiction”, and told people to prepare for a digital festive period. Nevertheless, a clear plurality (43%) support coronavirus restrictions, such as the Rule of Six, being relaxed over Christmas to allow families to celebrate together. Less than a third (31%) would oppose such a move.

However, in this instance, older people are much more cautious. A plurality (43%) of those aged 65 or above would oppose coronavirus restrictions being relaxed over Christmas, while just a third (33%) would support this. By contrast, 47% of 18-24-year olds and 58% of 25-34 year olds would support restrictions being temporarily lifted, while only between 18-27% would oppose this.

Although the public expresses strong support for tough restrictions to combat the coronavirus, their willingness to act within these rules in certain circumstances is less clear. Indeed, if coronavirus restrictions were still in place by Christmas and prevented households from mixing, only half (51%) claim that they would fully adhere to the rules and not celebrate with relatives or friends from other households. 15% think they would celebrate Christmas outdoors with family and friends, while 16% say they would still celebrate indoors with relatives or friends. A notable minority (14%) don’t know which approach they would take, and 4% think they will likely celebrate Christmas outside the United Kingdom.

Theoretical compliance rates with potential Christmas coronavirus restrictions are much higher among older respondents: 66% of those aged 65 or above would fully adhere to the rules and not celebrate with relatives or friends, as would 60% of those aged 55-64 and 54% of those aged between 45-54. By contrast, only 43% of 18-24-year olds, 35% of 25-34-year olds and 38% 35-44-year olds would fully comply. Such figures could be a reflection of younger people being more likely to live in shared flats away from their families, and therefore being particularly keen to return to the family home over the holidays.

Ultimately, the public does not think the Government is taking the right measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic and remains very pessimistic about the trajectory of the virus in the country. Several aspects of the Government’s pandemic response to the pandemic are viewed as failures. Overall, respondents would favour more restrictive regulations, including a “circuit breaker”, yet they are more divided on whether they would like to see tighter restrictions in their own area. Indeed, a focus on attitudes towards potential coronavirus restrictions over Christmas indicates that a substantial proportion of the population would be less likely to comply with tight restrictions in certain circumstances.

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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