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Has COVID-19 shifted public attitudes?

Posted on 16 December 2020 by Sir John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow
Tags: British Social Attitudes, COVID-19, income and welfare, social and political attitudes

Now that the prospect of an end to the pandemic is in sight, the question of what post-pandemic Britain should look like will soon become a pressing one. Should everyday life and public policy return to ‘normal’ – or does COVID-19 represent an opportunity to reshape the country’s social and economic life and the role that government plays in facilitating it?

There have certainly been plenty of clarion calls for change espoused in recent weeks. For example, it has been suggested that the willingness of people to restrict their everyday activity to help ‘save the NHS’ has created new bonds of togetherness that should be harnessed to strengthen civic life. At the same time, it has been argued that the pandemic exposed unacceptable levels of inequality in British society that government can and should do more to eradicate.

Yet interesting and challenging as such arguments might be, there are potential counter-arguments too. Far from fostering togetherness, perhaps the pandemic has created both a resentment at the imposition of the restrictions on people’s lives, and a disdain for those who are thought to be breaking them? Far from welcoming the dramatic expansion in government expenditure, perhaps people are fearful of the tax bill that will come in its wake?

In truth, any vision for Britain’s post-pandemic future and the role that public policy might play in shaping it needs to be informed by an understanding of how the attitudes and expectations of ordinary citizens have – or have not – changed in the wake of the pandemic. How the public have reacted cannot be taken for granted.

Today we publish the initial findings of a UKRI-funded research project that is designed to help understand the impact of COVID19 on public attitudes. In July, just as the country was emerging from the initial lockdown, we invited members of NatCen’s mixed mode random probability panel – all of them previous respondents to the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey – to answer a suite of 60 questions that had previously been carried on BSA. This approach gives us unique insight into how far attitudes towards the subject matter of the survey – inequality and the role of government, levels of trust, and authoritarianism – have or have not changed in the wake of the pandemic. Over 2,400 respondents answered our questions.

There is one striking headline. Despite being by far the most disruptive – and in some cases life-threatening – experience since 1945, it appears that the initial onset of the pandemic at least has not brought about a radical change in social attitudes and expectations.

The figure that above all is emblematic of this conclusion is that, despite the dramatic increase in public spending in the wake of the pandemic, the proportion who think that taxes should be increased in order to spend more on health, education, and social services is, at 53%, exactly the same as it was in the last regular BSA survey conducted in the second half of last year, before the pandemic.

Meanwhile, support for the government redistributing income from the better-off to the less well-off is, at 42%, the same as in each of 2016, 2017 and 2018. People’s reported willingness to trust others (social trust) is not out of line with that recorded by BSA over the last two decades either. And, at 36%, the proportion who think that the law should always be obeyed even if a particular law is wrong is exactly the same as in 2018.

At present at least, it looks as though those who wish to reshape Britain cannot presume that the country is looking for a fresh vision. Rather, policy makers may well find themselves facing much the same domestic attitudinal landscape as the one they had to negotiate before the pandemic cast its shadow across the world.

And yet – there is more to say than this. The pandemic itself may not so far have initially changed attitudes (and we will be returning to our respondents next spring to see if there has been an impact over the longer term), but it has occurred at a time when people were already more supportive of the kind of economic intervention that the government has found itself taking during the pandemic.

One of the striking features of social attitudes in Britain until recently was a low level of support for the provision of welfare for those of working age. Voters appeared to take their cue from the reluctance of the Labour government of 1997-2010 and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010-15 to spend money in this area. However, there have been signs in recent years of this mood being reversed. For example, in last year’s BSA slightly more people said that unemployment benefit was too low (36%) than said it was too high (35%) – the first time this had happened since 1997.

Providing support for those whose employment is either under threat (via furloughing) or has been lost (by uprating universal credit payments) has, of course, been one of the key ways in which the government has endeavoured to put a safety net underneath an ailing labour market. While there does not appear to have been an increase in support for welfare spending beyond the rise that was already in evidence before COVID-19 struck, people in Britain were seemingly already beginning to ask themselves whether the country’s welfare system was fit for purpose. Perhaps that debate at least will still be with us when the pandemic is finally over.

‘Coronavirus and public attitudes: Plus ça change?’ by John Curtice, Dominic Abrams and Curtis Jessop can be downloaded here.

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