With most remaining coronavirus restrictions having been lifted in England on 19 July, many Britons are looking to the future with a mixture of hope and trepidation. More than ever, striking a balance between public safety and personal freedom is the foremost challenge facing policy and private citizens. Indeed, over the past eighteen months, coronavirus restrictions have become highly politicised, with anti-lockdown movements increasingly gaining global traction, and conservative opponents alleging that restrictions constitute a violation of the rights and free choice of the individual. As vaccination rates have grown—appearing to break the link between infections and hospitalisations—so too has the pressure on lawmakers to justify the restriction of individual liberties in the name of public health. Yet, despite this mounting criticism, the latest research by Redfield & Wilton Strategies shows that the British public is broadly supportive of the Government’s restriction of individual rights to protect the community.
With the majority of Britons expecting another lockdown in 2021, our latest weekly tracker poll reveals a considerable degree of anxiety about how the UK will fare with restrictions lifted. In fact, for the first time since December 2020, the proportion who thinks the UK Government is currently not taking the right measures to address the coronavirus pandemic (50%) outnumber those who think the Government is taking the right measures (34%).
Similarly, a plurality (41%) feels that the Government is not taking the right measures to address the economic repercussions of the pandemic. The public is also now split on where the UK is with respect to the timeline of the pandemic—with 36% saying ‘the worst is behind us’ and 36% saying ‘the worst is yet to come.’
In fact, our research suggests there is widespread support for the Government’s restriction of individual rights and freedoms for the purpose of community protection. A strong majority (71%) of respondents agree with a statement suggesting that the Government has the right to restrict their actions, wherever their actions may threaten others.
Only 11% disagree with this statement. 17% neither agree nor disagree, and 2% are unsure of their view. In line with this, the majority of Britons (68%) agree that they have the freedom to act as they wish, so long as they do not harm others with their actions, with 19% neither agreeing nor disagreeing with this statement, 11% disagreeing, and 2% unsure.
Moreover, the majority (52%) say coronavirus restrictions do not infringe on their personal freedoms and liberties as British citizens. By contrast, 39% say they do infringe on their personal freedoms and liberties, and a further 9% are unsure.
However, a generational divide is visible on this question, with older respondents being far more likely to say restrictions do not infringe on their personal freedoms and liberties, a view held by majorities of 45-to-54-year-olds (57%), 55-to-64-year-olds (65%), and those aged 65 and over (64%). By contrast, the opinion that coronavirus restrictions do infringe on personal freedoms is held by the majority of 25-to-34-year-olds (54%), as well as pluralities of 18-to-24-year-olds (49%) and 35-to-44-year-olds (43%).
Likewise, although there is widespread agreement across age groups that the Government has the right to restrict citizens’ actions wherever they threaten others, older respondents are again more likely to agree: strong majorities of 55-to-64-year-olds (84%) and those aged 65 and over (79%) agree that the Government has the right to restrict their actions wherever they threaten others, compared to slimmer majorities of 35-to-44-year-olds (54%) and 25-to-34-year-olds (58%).
Younger respondents are also more likely than older respondents to say they followed the coronavirus restrictions in the past year primarily to protect others near them, rather than both themselves and others near them—though a majority of younger respondents nevertheless do say they followed the restrictions to protect both themselves and others near them.
This trend—of age as a decisive factor in attitude to restrictions—is reflected in overall levels of support for ‘Freedom Day.’ 42% of Britons support the lifting of all domestic coronavirus restrictions which took place on 19 July, but this proportion rises to 59% among 25-to-34-year-olds and falls to 31% among those aged 65 and over.
With the end of domestic restrictions having arrived—a prospect which continues to divide public opinion, with half of Britons saying the Government is currently not taking the right measures to address the pandemic—it appears the British public has an altogether supportive view of the Government’s intervention in their personal lives in the name of communal good. Most Britons do not think restrictions have been an infringement on their personal liberties, though a significant generational divide is visible on many questions regarding restrictions and individual freedom. Overall, the public generally believes that it is the Government’s right to restrict personal actions that are harmful to others, and that as members of the public, they have the freedom to act as they wish only so long as they do not harm others.