The furlough scheme, rolled out by the UK Government in March 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, has paid the wages of roughly 9.5 million people for nearly 18 months. Amid changing lockdown rules, the closure of thousands of businesses, and a reduction in income for some over the course of the pandemic, the furlough scheme has remained a lifeline for many people around the country.
Even as the furlough scheme was scaled back somewhat last year, polling by Redfield & Wilton Strategies in August 2020 found that the British public was steadfastly in favour of the scheme. Now, as the UK Government remains confident that coronavirus restrictions will soon be lifted, the furlough scheme is set to stay in place until September 2021, as many businesses and individuals continue to struggle with the economic impact of the pandemic. At the beginning of July, however, the government intends to reduce the maximum financial support they provide from 80% to 70% of wages, and the Labour Party has warned that the delay in easing restrictions may mean that many hospitality, cultural, and arts businesses will require further support beyond the scheme.
In recent research conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies, we asked Britons about their opinions on the furlough scheme. Overall, a majority of Britons (69%) feel that the furlough scheme has been a success. Whilst 18% neither agree nor disagree, a very small proportion of 8% disagree with the statement that the furlough scheme has been a success.
A majority (75%) of 2019 Conservative voters agree that the furlough scheme has been a success, and this sentiment is largely mirrored by 2019 Labour voters (69%). Further, a significant majority (77%) of those who think the UK Government has handled the pandemic well agree that the furlough scheme has been a success, along with 63% of those who do not believe the Government has handled the coronavirus crisis well.
Significantly, large majorities of 55-to-64-year-olds (74%) and those aged 65 and over (73%) agree that the furlough scheme has been a success. With a recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report showing that workers between the age of 50 and 69 were more likely to be furloughed and less likely to return to work post-pandemic, these findings are significant, as they suggest most individuals of this age consider those in their age bracket to have been appropriately supported by the Government over the last year and a half.
The British public seems to have been continually supportive of measures supporting individuals and businesses out of work: in a poll conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies in July 2020, 61% of respondents agreed that the furlough scheme was a success. The similarity between these findings and our current research shows that there has been little change in attitudes towards the scheme since last summer.
Furthermore, a majority (65%) of Britons surveyed support the maintenance of the furlough scheme until September 2021, as currently planned, whereas just 12% oppose this measure. Support for the maintenance of the furlough scheme comes most fervently from 2019 Labour voters (72%). Support amongst 2019 Conservative voters (62%) is slightly lower, but nonetheless supporters of the furlough scheme extension remain in a significant majority.
Perhaps recognising the financial burden of the scheme, a majority (55%) do support the proposed reduction of Government wage contributions from 80% to 70%, with just 18% of Britons opposing this move. Support for this amongst 2019 Conservative voters is in a majority at 70%, whilst the reduction in wage contributions receives support from a plurality (47%) of 2019 Labour voters.
Furthermore, an overall plurality (36%) agrees that ‘the furlough scheme has spent too much Government money.’ A larger plurality (42%) of 2019 Conservative voters agrees with this statement, whilst 2019 Labour voters remain quite split on this issue: 34% agree with the above statement, whilst a comparable 39% disagree.
That being said, many Britons feel comfortable with the overall level of Government spending. When asked for their view on the topic, a plurality (43%) say the Government is currently spending about the right amount of money, with just 22% believing that the Government is spending too much, and a small minority of 13% believing the Government to be spending too little.
The proportion of those who believe that the Government is spending too little generally declines with age: 22% of 18-to-24-year-olds currently believe that the Government is spending too little, in comparison to 6% of those aged 65 and over. A notable share of Conservative voters (25%) believe the Government to be spending too much, whilst 23% of 2019 Labour voters believe the Government to be spending too little. Interestingly, a similar proportion (20%) of Labour voters also believe the Government to be currently spending too much.
Moreover, a considerable minority takes a slightly cynical view of those currently using the furlough scheme, with an overall 32% believing that the furlough scheme presently allows people to afford not to work at a time when they should be returning to work or looking for a new job. Whilst a majority (54%) believe the opposite and find that the furlough scheme allows people to afford not to work at a time when they cannot return or are unable to find a new job, this result does point to a certain level of mistrust in those currently on furlough. More specifically, a significant minority (38%) of 2019 Conservative voters believe that the furlough scheme allows people to not work when they should either be working or job hunting, compared to 27% of 2019 Labour voters who believe this. Nevertheless, a plurality (48%) of 2019 Conservative voters and a majority (62%) of 2019 Labour voters do believe that the furlough scheme is being used as per its intention and is supporting those who are unable to work or find a job under the current circumstances.
Indeed, respondents were divided on the question of how many presently furloughed workers will actually return to the job they currently hold when the scheme ends. Overall, a plurality (45%) thinks that 50-75% of presently furloughed workers will return to their jobs when the scheme ends.
A further 25% consider this proportion to be 75-90% of presently furloughed workers, and 7% think it will be above 90% of workers. On the other hand, 17% say only 25-50% of presently furloughed workers will return to their jobs. Responses do not vary significantly by political affiliation. Again, these findings point to a fair degree of scepticism about users of the furlough system, though most people tend toward thinking many workers will return to the jobs for which they are currently receiving furloughed payments.
This research shows that, as the furlough scheme winds down over the next few months, those surveyed remain largely supportive of the Government’s financial provisions thus far. Despite calls for further financing, and some concerns about the reduction in state contributions to the scheme, the British public remains fervently in support of furlough and the Government’s financial aid at this point in the pandemic. There is nonetheless a slight degree of scepticism about those currently on furlough.