UK public view COVID-19 as a threat because lockdowns were used

  • Date

    Wed 7 Jul 21

Paul Hanel

The UK public is likely to take the COVID-19 pandemic less seriously once restrictions are lifted, according to new research.

Psychologists found lockdown in itself was a primary reason why so many people were willing to abide by the rules from the start – believing the threat must be severe if the government imposes such drastic measures.

The team from Cardiff, Bath and Essex universities examined the reasons behind support for COVID-19 measures. Lead author Dr Colin Foad, from Cardiff University explained: “Surprisingly, we found that people judge the severity of the COVID-19 threat based on the fact the government imposed a lockdown – in other words, they thought ‘it must be bad if government’s taking such drastic measures’. 

“We also found that the more they judged the risk in this way, the more they supported lockdown. This suggests that if and when ‘Freedom Day’ comes and restrictions are lifted, people may downplay the threat of COVID.” 

The pandemic has been characterised by strong public support for lockdowns, but the research found that although lockdown measures were supported, many felt its side effects were ‘unacceptable’ – suggesting people felt more conflicted than the headline polls suggest. For example, when people think about the costs of lockdown, such as detriment to mental health and reduced access to treatment for non-COVID health problems, they felt these could outweigh the benefits.

Dr Paul Hanel, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex, said: “Polling data from large samples are important in understanding what people think. Our study, however, shows that it is crucial to ask the right questions because otherwise we are only getting a limited and potentially even misleading picture of how diverse and even conflicting public opinions truly are.”

The research also found personal threats to an individual’s safety – including the government reminding people that they and their loved ones are at risk from COVID-19 – did not relate to their support for restrictions. Instead, people judged the threat at a much more general level, such as towards the country as a whole. Researchers concluded messaging that targets their personal sense of threat is unlikely to actually raise support for any further restrictions.

The researchers warned there was a risk of public opinion and government policy “forming a symbiotic relationship”, which could affect how policies are implemented now and in future.

Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist from the University of Bath, said: “This has important implications for how we deal with other risks, like climate change – the public will be more likely to believe it’s a serious problem if governments implement bold policies to tackle it.”

Professor Whitmarsh suggested bold actions might include stopping all road building (as has happened recently in Wales) or blocking airport expansions.

The researchers are calling for more nuanced use of polling data to accurately gauge the diversity and complexity of public opinion.

Their findings, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, were based on two UK surveys, six months apart, carried out during 2020.