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Will COVID-19 change what the public expect of government?

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Published: December 2020

Looking at whether key political attitudes and values have changed following 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 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 suggests 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 address the pandemic’s consequences. Unsurprisingly, there has been considerable speculation about the impact that this dramatic shock to people’s lives and livelihoods will have on attitudes, behaviour and public policy.

This project looks at whether key political attitudes and values have changed following the pandemic. In particular, it assesses whether or not the experience has changed attitudes towards: (i) the role of government in managing the economy, in providing welfare and in addressing inequality, (ii) the relative importance of individual civil liberties versus adherence to collective social codes, and (iii) the globalisation process, including most notably immigration.

Selected findings

Wave 1 – ‘Post lock-down’ (July 2020)

Our early data suggest that the public will not necessarily have very different priorities and preferences from those they had before the pandemic. However, it may be that it takes a while for the pandemic to make its impact on people’s views, and as restrictions have lasted longer and impacts on the economy become more severe than many anticipated this may change.

Inequality and the role of the state

  • The increase in public spending does not seem to have changed attitudes on whether the government should reduce or increase taxes and spending, or leave them the same.
  • There is some indication that the public are more concerned about inequality, although this may be part of a longer-term trend. There has been little change in the proportion who think the government should be redistributing income to those who are less well off.
  • A recent trend towards reduced opposition to spending on welfare payments has not been reversed.

Trust in people and government

  • There is no clear indication on what impact, if any, the initial phase of the pandemic has had on social trust.
  • There has been a drop in who say they almost never trust the government to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their party.  However, it is likely that this was occasioned by the delivery of Brexit following the 2019 General Election.

Libertarianism and authoritarianism

  • There is some evidence that, in an era of tight regulation of people’s everyday lives, people are more likely to disagree that the law should always be obeyed.
  • However, there is also some evidence that people have become less tolerant of political protest than in the recent past.

Methodology

The data used in this study are a mixture of existing data from historical waves of the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, a high-quality, random probability face-to-face survey, and new data collected 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 2and 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%.

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