UK: Coronavirus and what the public thinks

March 14, 2020
Coronavirus | Healthcare

The British public is becoming increasingly worried about the threat of the coronavirus. In two polls one month apart, Redfield & Wilton Strategies asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statement:

The United Kingdom is ready to deal with the coronavirus outbreak and prevent it from becoming serious.

Altogether, 7% fewer respondents agreed and 16% more respondents disagreed with this statement compared to one month prior, showing a growing unease among members of the public as to whether their government is reacting appropriately to the crisis. Notably, more people are coming to have an opinion. 23% said they that they do not know or that they neither agree nor disagree, compared to 31% a month prior.

However, a plurality of respondents still agree that the United Kingdom is ready to deal with this outbreak, with 44% altogether agreeing and 34% disagreeing.

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement? “The United Kingdom is ready to deal with the coronavirus outbreak and prevent it from becoming serious.”

Britons also appear to be somewhat evenly split on the Government’s actions so far to protect them and properly respond to this crisis, with somewhat of a plurality believing them to be adequate.

Which of the following statements is closest to your view of the UK Government’s response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak so far?

At the same time, we also asked respondents how worried they were about the coronavirus and its effect to public health on a scale of 1 to 5. A small majority of respondents indicated that they were, at least, somewhat worried and have made some changes in the day-to-day life. However, only 17% described themselves as either very worried or extremely worried about the growing outbreak, suggesting that the vast majority of the public on Thursday was, at most, only mildly concerned.

On a scale of 1 to 5, how concerned are you about the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and its impact on the public’s health?

This poll comes as the United Kingdom’s government has embraced an unusual strategy compared to the rest of Europe and particularly to East Asian nations such as South Korea in addressing the coronavirus outbreak. At the moment, the Government has taken the assumption that the spread of coronavirus throughout the rest of the population is inevitable and cannot be prevented. Therefore, implementing stringent population distancing measures too early are seen by the Government to be counterproductive as they will simply result with another peak of the virus later on.

In an online Twitter video, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jenny Harries is seen speaking to Prime Minister Boris Johnson about the government’s strategy, in which they explain why they are taking a different approach. Taking a quotation from this video, we asked respondents to our poll whether they agreed to the reasoning behind this strategy:

An adviser to the UK Government has claimed that if the Government intervenes strongly against the coronavirus too early, “we will just pop up with another epidemic peak later on.” Do you agree with this assessment?

Unsurprisingly, a plurality of respondents simply indicated that they do not know whether to agree or disagree with this reasoning. A quarter of respondents disagreed with it, while a third agreed. This opinion will change significantly over time as the results of this strategy are seen, even more so when it becomes apparent whether or not countries that quickly imposed stringent measures see a rapid spread of coronavirus again upon the relaxation of those measures.

For the moment, a plurality of the population seems to agree or, at least, accept that the majority of the population will contract the virus. When asked whether they thought a majority of the population will inevitably contract coronavirus, 40% said yes. Yet, 38% also said no.

“Do you think a majority of the UK population will inevitably contract coronavirus?”

Altogether, these results suggest a certain, but limited level of trust in either the Government’s assumptions about the coronavirus or its eventual actions against the outbreak so far.

A taste of how that trust may change can be seen when we asked respondents about elsewhere Italy’s management of the outbreak. When looking towards this southern European country which saw a much earlier rise in cases, a significant majority of respondents said that the Italian government’s decision to implement a national quarantine was the right one. When asked particularly about the timing of the Italian government’s decision, a plurality of respondents (40%) believed this decision came too late.

Which of the following statements is closest to your view of the Italian government’s decision to implement a nationwide quarantine?

What do you think of the timing of the Italian government’s decision to implement a nationwide quarantine?

As the outbreak continues to grow exponentially in the United Kingdom, respondents may soon come to regret the Government’s proposed strategy. A particularly vulnerable assumption made by the UK Government is about the severity of the virus––not only with respects to mortality, but also to the number of sick who will require ICU treatment. Another significant unknown is the long-term effect of contracting the virus.

A majority of respondents on Thursday, shockingly, did not seem to grasp the known severity of the virus, with 35% saying it is dangerous as the seasonal flu and 16% saying it is less dangerous! This assumption is wholly at odds with even the lowest estimate of the mortality rate of those who have contracted coronavirus. The WHO has estimated the mortality rate in China to be as high as 3.4%, but even the comparably lower rate of 0.7% outside of Hubei Province or the figures in South Korea would be significantly larger, by an order of magnitude, than the death rate of the seasonal flu.

Compared to the seasonal flu, how dangerous do you think coronavirus is?  

Respondents may intuitively grasp this risk when it comes to themselves. When respondents were asked about whether they would be concerned if they had contracted coronavirus themselves, a third of respondents indicated significant concern, 24% saying they would be “very concerned about its effect on my health” and 9% saying they would be “extremely worried that I may lose my life.”

On a scale of 1 to 5, to what extent would you be concerned about your own personal health if you contracted coronavirus (COVID-19)?  

Critics of the UK’s strategy say that the Government is taking a huge gamble in allowing the majority of the population to contract the virus in a ‘controlled’ manner. The strongest critics suggest that containment, as Italy, South Korea, and China have done, rather than mitigating the spread should be the immediate solution.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb who co-authored one of the first papers on how to respond to the growing coronavirus outbreak in January, when cases totalled less than 1,000, has suggested that, for the sake of Skin in the Game, the leaders of the UK Government should infect themselves with coronavirus if they are so confident that the vast, vast majority of the UK population will be fine when they contract this disease.

The UK Government must know they are taking an incredible risk.

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.

This research was also published in The Telegraph.

Data tables for this research can be found here. 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.