Will COVID-19 change what the public expect of government?
Published: February 2022
Looking at how social and political attitudes have evolved during the course of the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has represented the most significant public health challenge in a century, costing tens of thousands of people in the UK their lives. The UK and devolved governments have intervened in people’s personal, social and economic lives to a degree unprecedented in peace time. The UK government has also presided over a dramatic increase in public spending and borrowing, both to ensure that vital public services, including the health service, can cope with the disease and to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the labour market and the economy more generally.
Previous research on pandemics, infectious disease and recession suggested that COVID-19 could have a significant impact on the public’s public policy preferences - and thus the environment in which policymakers will have to operate when the pandemic is over. Meanwhile, there has been considerable speculation that the dramatic shock to people’s lives and livelihoods will serve to ‘reset’ social attitudes, people’s behaviour, and public policy.
These possibilities have been tested by conducting two surveys, one in July 2020, shortly after the first wave of the pandemic had abated, and the other in June 2021, shortly before most of the measures to limit the spread of the disease were removed. The surveys, which replicated questions that had previously been asked on the British Social Attitudes survey, focused on two main themes: (i) the role of government in managing the economy, in providing welfare and in addressing inequality, and (ii) the relative importance of individual civil liberties versus adherence to the law and collective social codes.
The pandemic has proven primarily to be a ‘barometer’ of existing social and political attitudes than it has a ‘rest’ moment or a ‘turning point in history’. While some important changes in public opinion that were in evidence before the pandemic either held steady or continued further, there were relatively few signs that the pandemic triggered new shifts of opinion.
Welfare, Inequality and Public Spending
- In the years leading up to the pandemic, public attitudes had become more favourable towards the provision of welfare for those of working age. This shift remained in place during the pandemic, and the new mood may have helped underpin support for the government’s attempts to limit the loss of jobs and its decision to increase welfare payments.
- Already high at the outset, there were only limited signs of increased concern about inequality and none at all of increased support for income redistribution. The debate about inequality that arose at various stages in the pandemic was a reflection of existing concern rather than an indication of a new public mood
- Support for the expansion of public spending and taxation had increased in the years leading up to the pandemic. This may help explain why there has only been a modest reaction against the marked increase in public spending that occurred during the pandemic.
Law, Conformity and Values
- In the years leading up to the pandemic, Britain had become more ‘liberal’ in its attitudes towards the law and upholding ‘traditional’ social values. Despite the public disquiet that was sometimes expressed about the failure by some to adhere to the lockdown rules, this trend continued further during the pandemic, and was reflected in the continuing debate about how strict those rules should be.
- However, there is evidence that during the pandemic somewhat fewer people felt that people should be allowed to hold a political protest.
The data used in this study are a mixture of existing data from previous waves of the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, a high-quality, random probability face-to-face survey, and new data collected on two separate occasions using the random-probability NatCen Panel - a panel of people recruited from the BSA 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.
Fieldwork for the first, ‘post-lockdown’, survey wave took place between 2 and 26 July 2020. A total of 2,413 people took part in the survey representing a 68% survey response rate among those invited to take part. Taking account of nonresponse at the BSA interview and at the point of recruitment to the panel, the overall response rate was 15%. Meanwhile, fieldwork for the second, ‘end of lockdown’ survey was conducted between 10 June and 4 July 2021 when 2,217 people responded, representing 82% of those Invited to take part and 13% pf those originally selected for interview on BSA. Of those participating the first survey, 2,063 also responded to the second one, representing an 85% re-interview rate. Use is also made of the 2020 British Social Attitudes survey, which was conducted between October and December 2020, in between the two surveys undertaken specifically for this project.
February 2022: “A Turning Point in History? Social and Political Attitudes in Britain in the Wake of the Pandemic”
December 2021: John Curtice, “Have voters embraced a bigger state?”, IPPR Progressive Review
October 2021: “New Values, New Divides? The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on public attitudes”, 38th British Social Attitudes report
December 2020: “Coronavirus and Public Attitudes: Plus ça change?" (pdf)
Will COVID-19 Change What the Public Expect of Government, 2020-2021