COVID-19: The politics of economics and adjustment
Bobby Duffy sheds some light on how the restrictions imposed on the British population in order to curb the spread of COVID-19 have been received by the public, how perceived risk matters in this context and what UK policy makers need to look out for when phasing out those measures.
The light at the end of the tunnel is very faint, but growing. The daily count of new cases of the virus is slowly decreasing, which is the first step before hospital admissions fall, and death rates decrease.
But national economic forecasts in the UK are getting darker. And more attention is shifting to the wider impacts of the current extraordinary measures, on inequality and the vulnerable, and the other ‘fights’ we’ve put on hold, for example, cancer diagnoses and treatments.
The terrible balancing act between these risks is starting to take centre stage, as the government tests the ground on the timing and approach to our exit. And this is going to be a much more difficult public debate than the one we had going in.
There are reports that some in government are surprised at how completely we’ve complied with the new rules. Apparently, they were counting on a little more rebellion, or at least a more liberal reading of the guidance.
Instead, what we’ve seen is near-universal backing for the ‘lockdown’, as a major new King’s College London study has shown. Nine out of ten of us support the measures, including seven out of ten who strongly support them. In 25 years of studying public opinion in the UK, I’ve hardly ever seen seven in ten Brits strongly support anything. The major exception is the UK’s longstanding and deep love for the NHS, which points to one key reason behind our compliance.
Another major factor is our view of the risk. A lot of my work has focused on how clearly people see social realities such as crime rates and regular health risks, like obesity. And we’re usually hopelessly wrong1. But, on average, we have an incredibly accurate view of the impact of the virus, for example, guessing that the death rate was doubling every three days, and mirroring official views of the possible total death toll.
And where we’re wrong about coronavirus, we tend to be more worried than the currently very scant data suggests we should be. For example, 30% of us expect that we’ll need to be hospitalised if we catch the virus. We don’t yet know what the real figure for this will be, because we have tested such a tiny proportion of the population. But the Imperial College model that was key to spurring the government into action suggested it could be 4.4%, drawing on data from China. Of course, 4.4% translates into a huge number of people, that would have swamped the NHS – but our own guess is seven times higher.
The fact that we’ve paid closer attention to the risks than we normally do, and that we are, if anything, overestimating the danger, should not be a surprise. We’ve seen extraordinary measures and relentless messages that directly trigger our tendency to inflate some types of risk. We know people think tornadoes are more deadly than asthma, when the latter kills many times more people than the former. We’re naturally drawn to the unusual and sudden, as is media coverage, which helps to reinforce our views.
This virus is also seen as a very personal and direct threat, not just a distant, televised spectacle. The King’s College study also shows that six out of ten people think they themselves have a condition that puts them at risk of severe coronavirus symptoms, or have close family or friends that do.
Apparently, some in the UK Cabinet see public opinion as key, in taking us into these extraordinary measures, and therefore how we’ll come out. And you can understand why there is a keen political interest in how the public will react. While there is near universal support for the lockdown, views on the government’s overall strategy are much more mixed: the majority think the response was too slow, many think it has been confused and most think that ‘herd immunity’ was the original plan.
But if anyone is expecting a clear signal of change in public views, they’ll be disappointed. First, the appetite for continuing the measures is still strong. Through our study, we have found that four out of ten of us expect the current measures to last for six months or longer. It’s true that 15% are already finding it extremely difficult – but a quarter don’t expect it to be, regardless of how long the lockdown goes on.
And this difference in expectations for the future between different groups of people points to the real issue: while public opinion has been incredibly unified on the way in, it will fragment on the way out. There will be no clear tipping point towards relaxing the lockdown that the government can either create or mirror.
Instead, growing poles of opinion seem more likely, and the government is not going to please everyone, or be able to point to a blindingly clear ‘public will’ that justifies its actions. The politics are about to get much messier, and, well, more normal.
1 See Bobby Duffy, The Perils of Perception: Why we’re wrong about nearly everything. Atlantic 2018
Bobby Duffy is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London.