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‘What counts?’: An inquiry into obtaining and using evidence for COVID-19 decisions

laboratory
Researchers: Curtis Jessop
Published: May 2022

This inquiry, led by Sense about Science, examined how well the government's evidence for COVID-19 decisions served society. These findings focus on the results of a NatCen survey of UK adults on how the public engaged with COVID-19 policy evidence.

Findings

A sizeable proportion of UK adults have engaged with medical information websites and government statistics since the start of the pandemic

  • Thirty-six per cent of UK adults had accessed information related to COVID-19 from reports of government statistics
  • Thirty-five per cent of UK adults had accessed information related to COVID-19 from Public Health England’s UK data dashboard and 15% from the ONS website

However, people reported lower engagement with government information on COVID-19 since March 2021 than during the first 6 months of the pandemic

  • Fifty per cent of UK adults reported being very aware of information, guidelines and rules related to COVID-19 provided by the government during the first six months of the pandemic, compared to 29% since March 2021.
  • Sixty-nine per cent of UK adults reported finding out the latest information related to COVID-19 provided by the government and official sources once a day or more often during the first six months of the pandemic, compared to 37% since March 2021.

Younger people were less engaged than older people during the first six months of the pandemic, and this decline in engagement was also greater for that age group

  • The proportion of 18 to 29 year olds reporting being ‘very aware’ declined by 30 percentage points (from 43% to 13%) compared to only 16 percentage points for people aged 50 or older (from 53% to 37%).The proportion of 18 to 29 year olds finding out the latest information once a day or more declined by 45 percentage points (from 65% to 20%) compared to only 27 percentage points for people aged 50 or older (from 75% to 48%).

The full results of the survey were published with the report of Sense about Science’s What Counts? scoping inquiry.

More details about Sense about Science’s inquiry.

Guy Goodwin, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Social Research, said: “As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s important we understand and learn from people’s experiences with government information on Covid-19. This research can help shape future public health messaging, helping people across society to make sound decisions about key issues affecting their lives.”

Tracey Brown, Director of Sense about Science said: “The government's communication of evidence was largely authoritarian, with its emphasis on simple slogans and rules, although some parts of government did try to provide and discuss the evidence base for decisions. Government must now ask itself whether it sees its role as enabling society or only instructing it. The pandemic has shown that, for rapidly evolving policies to be successfully implemented in many and varied settings, people on the ground need to be empowered to make well-reasoned judgements. That requires a government committed to being transparent and responsive, sharing what it knows and explaining decisions not made on evidence.”

Methods

Fieldwork for this strand of the study was conducted using the random-probability NatCen Panel. The NatCen Panel is a panel of people recruited from high-quality, random probability surveys such as the British Social Attitudes survey. Those agreeing to join the Panel are then invited to take part in additional short surveys covering a range of different topics either online or over the phone. By using a probability-based sample and allowing those without internet access to take part this design reduces the risk of bias compared to online-only surveys which exclude those who do not have access to, or are less confident using, the internet or surveys using convenience samples which are more likely to include people who are more ‘available’ or particularly want to express their views.

The survey was conducted between 24th of September and 24th of October 2021. A total of 2,563 of the  3,260 panel members invited to take part did so, giving a 79% survey response rate. Taking account of nonresponse at the recruitment interview and at the point of recruitment to the panel, the overall response rate was 10%. The data were weighted to be representative of the UK adult (18+) population.

Media coverage

Director of Sense about Science Tracey Brown was interviewed about the findings on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland, 16th December 2021. Interview begins at 1:55:18.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0012gwp

Read the report here