As the economic effects of the lockdown become increasingly frightening, there is an argument being made that Government faces a choice between continuing the lockdown or saving the economy. This argument, however, assumes that it is the Government that decides when it is safe or not safe for members of the public to go out and resume normal activities. It takes for granted the assumption that life would presumably be closer to our ordinary lives without the present lockdown measures. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is no such choice available to the UK Government whatsoever.
In the weeks before the official order to stay at home, members of the public had long been retreating to their homes. Businesses had long mandated its workers to work from home, restaurants and pubs had seen massive decreases in patrons, public transportation services served fewer riders and streets altogether carried less traffic. In Sweden, where the government has not implemented a lockdown and restaurants and bars remain, to an extent, open, the vast majority of regular activities have stopped. As has been reported in the Sunday Telegraph, the Government was actually very reluctant to take the measures it has taken and, instead, felt pressured by the media and public to do so.
To get a sense of whether the public is ready to go back to their normal lives, Redfield & Wilton Strategies polled 1,500 respondents in Great Britain this past Friday. In particular, we wanted to know what they made of the current lockdown measures, including its recent extension, and, also, whether the public was at all ready for a relaxation of measures. What we found is that it is clearly the public who will decide when the lockdown ends. Even if the Government had decided to end the lockdown last week, little would have changed, because, simply put, people are too afraid to leave their homes.
A Prisoner, not Controller, of Events
Overwhelmingly, respondents to our poll approved of the extension of the current lockdown measures. 83% agreed with the decision and only 5% disagreed. More than a quarter (28%) of the few who disagreed said they disagreed because the extension should have been set even longer.
Thinking about the new deadline, the 7th of May, two thirds of respondents thought it was either ‘nearly certain’ (24%) or quite likely (42%) that it would be extended again. Only 4% thought it was unlikely.
More strikingly, when members of the public were asked as to whether the Government had a strategy for how and when to end the lockdown, a plurality said no.
Such pessimism indicates an acknowledgement by the public that the Government is not controlling events but is rather a prisoner of events. It also betrays an element of superficiality to the current level of approval members of the public have for the Government. If the public has no faith in the Government’s ability to implement a relaxation of the lockdown measures, then, of course, it will also strongly approve of a decision to extend the lockdown.
Thinking further ahead to the deadline on the 7th of May, we asked members of the public whether they would feel safe or not safe doing certain activities that were part of their normal, everyday lives before this pandemic struck. Overwhelmingly, we saw a strong disinclination to return to life as normal. Notably, 84% said they would not feel safe going to a restaurant or pub, and a majority would not feel safe returning to work.
Such numbers indicate that even if the Government told the public that it the lockdown was over and that it was safe to begin returning to our normal lives, the vast majority of the public would not budge. Thinking about when they might be comfortable with the Government beginning to relax the current lockdown measures, in terms of new cases per day, 15% preferred absolutely zero cases per day for several days in a row. Among those who would accept some cases, 54% altogether would be comfortable with 100 or fewer new cases per day. On the day the poll was conducted, there were more than 5,000 new confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country.
Given this very low number, it may take quite some time before the public is comfortable going out into the world again. In fact, a respectable share of respondents believe that it is possible that the lockdown measures, if appropriately enforced, could eventually result in no more transmissions of the virus. If such a goal is considered realistic by nearly 40% of the population, what is stopping that segment of the population from demanding that the lockdown is extended until this goal is reached?
The overwhelming conclusion we draw from our Friday poll is that it is not the responsibility of the Government to decide when it will be safe for the public to attempt resuming their ‘normal’ lives. The public will come to make that decision for themselves. Rather, it is the responsibility of the Government to make it safe, such that the public is willing to make this decision. If the Government had decided to end the lockdown last week, nothing would have changed for the vast majority of the UK population.
Making It Safe Again
A critical factor in making it safe is testing. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has promised that the UK Government will be conducing 100,000 tests by the end of April. When asked whether they thought the Government would meet this goal, a majority of respondents said they thought the government would fail.
Another major question is masks. When asked whether they thought the Government should require members of the public to wear masks, more respondents supported the idea than opposed it––although a large share said they did not know either way.
In fact, when we asked respondents whether they would feel safe going outside on May 7th provided that masks were required as well as hand sanitizers at all businesses, there was about a 3% difference altogether, with notable swings among the working population and those willing to take public transportation.
However, any improvement, no matter how marginal, in the public safety and in the overall feeling of safety, such that members of the public are willing to resume economic activity, should be welcome. Asked why they thought the UK Government had,so far not required members of the public to wear masks or makeshift masks, while other governments across the world had done so, respondents were split between accepting the government line and fears of a lack of an adequate supply of masks.
We shall see in the coming days and weeks whether the Government decides to stick to the line that masks are not helpful and are even dangerous, a point of view that few governments across the world are taking.
Nevertheless, it is altogether clear that the public is also pessimistic about the extent to which the Government is capable of making life safe again. They do not believe testing will soon reach its needed capacity, and they largely think masks should be required.
The Economic Urgency
At the same time, there will likely be an increasing urgency among members of the public and business organisations for the Government to find genuine solutions to ending this lockdown. Half of respondents to our Friday poll, who had indicated that they had been employed at the beginning of March, said their employment status was at risk. A further 2% said they had already lost their jobs.
Of those respondents who said their employment status was at least somewhat at risk, three quarters said the likelihood of them keeping their jobs depended on the lengths of the lockdown.
This urgency to end the lockdown comes at a time when 44% of employed respondents expected to earn less than normally in the month of April, including 21% expecting to earn “significantly less.” Such a noticeable difference will have repercussions that reverberate well after the lockdown has ended.
Altogether, about 7% predicted their financial situation to become “dire” such that they will require serious financial assistance. An additional 21% said their finances will be “quite negatively impacted” although they did feel somewhat resilient about their ability to get through it. Taking these two figures together show that more than a quarter of respondents believed that the coronavirus crisis will have a significant impact on their finances.
Therefore, while the Government cannot necessarily determine when the lockdown ends, it can and must be working towards solutions that make Britain safe enough such that the public can willingly agree to and comply with an end to the lockdowns.
There is no other choice.
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.
Part of this research was also reported in The Sunday Telegraph.