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Has COVID-19 shifted public attitudes? Not yet at least, finds survey

16 December 2020 | Tags: COVID-19, British Social Attitudes

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed everyday life and seen unprecedented government intervention in the economy and society. Yet the public’s views on welfare, public spending and individual freedoms have scarcely changed since the pandemic began, a new post-lockdown survey by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) reveals today. However, the government’s decision to spend money on keeping people in jobs, and on increased welfare benefit for those without one, does match a changed public mood that was already in evidence before the pandemic.

Adults who previously participated in the annual British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey were asked in July 2020, three months after the first national lockdown, to answer a suite of questions that had appeared on previous BSA surveys.

The aim was to ascertain whether the pandemic and the consequent unprecedented government intervention had resulted in a shift in public attitudes.

The research, led by Professor Sir John Curtice, compared 2,413 responses to the post-lockdown survey with those collected in recent years on the BSA survey. It found:​

  • Public opinion on the level of taxation and public spending has remained steady, despite the dramatic increase in public spending during the pandemic. Just over half (53%) on the post-lockdown survey backed an increase in taxes and spending on health, education and social benefits, exactly the same proportion as before the pandemic.
  • One third (32%) disagreed that people ‘would learn to stand on their own two feet if welfare benefits weren’t so generous’, in line with views expressed on the BSA survey over the past four years.
  • Four in ten (42%) agreed government should redistribute income from the better-off to the less well-off, in line with responses given on the BSA survey since 2012.

The study also examined whether attitudes towards individual freedoms, including obeying the law and the right to protest, had changed following the restrictions to public life. While slightly more people in the post-lockdown survey disagreed that ‘the law should always be obeyed, even if a particular law is wrong’, there was less support for allowing marches and protests now than before the pandemic.

“In its initial phase, at least the pandemic has not been accompanied by a dramatic change in public attitudes towards inequality and the role of the state”, the report says.

“Even if the pandemic has resulted in some increased recognition of the extent of inequality in our society, it is not immediately evident that it has substantially increased the level of support for government action to tackle the issue.”

“At this stage, we cannot presume that the coronavirus outbreak is necessarily set to result in a public mood that will offer unprecedented levels of support to future attempts to reduce inequality or expand the role of government.”

However, after over twenty years of widespread scepticism about spending money on welfare for those of working age, more favourable attitudes that were already in evidence before the pandemic appear to have been maintained. 

Last year – for the first time in over 20 years – as many people said that unemployment benefit was too low (36%) as said that it was too high (35%). Post-lockdown, as many people said that spending on benefits for the unemployed should be increased (28%) as said it should be reduced (28%).

Professor Sir John Curtice, report co-author and NatCen Senior Research Fellow, said: “The experience of the pandemic does not yet appear to have brought about a radical change in social attitudes and expectations. There were already signs before the pandemic that people were now minded to leave behind the ‘austerity’ that had characterised the government’s approach to public spending since 2010. To that extent, public opinion had already become somewhat more receptive to a more interventionist role for the state, and that revised mood seems still to be in place now.”

“Politicians and policy makers should not assume that the public will necessarily have very different priorities and preferences from those they had before the pandemic. If government wishes to pursue a different course from the past, they may well need to persuade people of the merits of doing so, and certainly should not assume that the public have already arrived at the same conclusions.”

Lottie Birdsall-Strong, Head of Social and Political Attitudes at NatCen, said: “It might seem self-evident that the biggest disruption to national life since 1945, transforming the role of the state in every area of society, would have changed people’s views on public spending and individual freedoms. This research makes clear that is not yet the case.”

ENDS

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Notes to editors

1. The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), Britain’s largest independent social research organisation, aims to make life better through high quality social research (www.natcen.ac.uk).

2. The research reported here is funded by the Economic and Social Research council as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID–19.
The 2020 data reported here were collected via NatCen’s mixed mode random probability panel. A total of 2,413 adults aged 18 or over completed the survey between 2 and 26 July 2020. The survey comprised people who originally were selected at random to be interviewed face to face for the 2018 or 2019 British Social Attitudes survey (BSA). Further details of how the original BSA surveys were conducted can be found at https://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/latest-report/british-social-attitudes-37/technical-details.aspx.

3. The authors are Professor Sir John Curtice, Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University and Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Social Research; Dominic Abrams, Professor of Social Psychology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Group Processes, University of Kent; and Curtis Jessop, Research Director, National Centre for Social Research. Responsibility for the views expressed here lies solely with the authors.