There remains near-universal backing for the coronavirus lockdown among the UK public. In our study, nine out of ten people 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 nation’s longstanding and deep love for the NHS – which points to one key reason behind the level of compliance.
But while support for the extraordinary measures appears incredibly uniform, their impact and our underlying attitudes are not, as a new segmentation analysis from King’s College London shows.
Through statistical analysis, we’ve identified three main clusters within the population, which we’ve called the “Accepting”, the “Suffering” and the “Resisting”.
You can get an idea of the incredible variety of experiences of the lockdown among these different groups through their responses to just a few questions. For example, nearly all of the Suffering group say they have been more anxious or depressed since the measures were announced, compared with just 8% of the Accepting. A third of the Suffering say they think about coronavirus all the time, compared with 11% of the Accepting.
The Accepting, on the other hand, are much less likely to have experienced some of the key negative impacts identified in the survey. Only 12% have slept less or less well than before the lockdown, compared with an incredible 64% of the Suffering. The Resisting are particularly likely to have argued with their family or housemates, and both drank more alcohol than they normally would or used non-prescription drugs.
This Resisting group is a smaller proportion of the population than the other two groups, at 9% of UK adults, but this still means they make up around 5 million people. This is important, because they have very different views from the rest of the population on some key aspects of the crisis and very different behaviours.
Most notably, three in five of them think that “too much fuss” is being made about the risk of coronavirus. Reflecting this mindset that reactions have been overblown, a third of them expect life to return to normal within three months, which is three times as high as the rest of the UK public. Only a quarter of Resistors strongly support the current lockdown measures, compared with three-quarters of the other two groups.
The Resisting group are also much more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and highly unlikely assessments of how far the virus has spread. For example, half of them believe that the virus was probably created in a lab, and 60% believe that most people in the UK have already had the virus without realising it.
These attitudes and beliefs are reflected in much less compliance with official guidance, with four in ten of the Resistor group saying they’ve met up with friends outside their home, compared with hardly anyone in the other two groups.
Other findings in the survey suggest that this Resisting group are also particularly fearful about the future impact of the lockdown on them personally. An incredible two-thirds of this group think that they’re at least fairly likely to lose their job and face financial difficulties as a result of the lockdown. Their more rebellious response may, therefore, be related to a type of wishful thinking: some may be downplaying the risks and measures because they see them as a very direct the threat to their own livelihood.
This Resistor group is also heavily concentrated in some sections of the population, with half of them being aged 16-24. At the other end of the spectrum, the Accepting are overwhelmingly in older groups, with 41% aged 55%.
The Suffering, in contrast, are spread across the age range, but are significantly more likely to be women, while men make up the majority of the other two groups. This pattern is reflected across the survey more generally, with women much more likely to report higher stress levels, difficulty sleeping and concern about the impact of continuing lockdown measures.
There are also differences in political support, with the Accepting significantly more likely to be Conservative supporters, the Resisting more likely to support Labour, while the Suffering are most likely of the three groups to be Remain supporters. Each of these patterns will partly reflect the different age and gender profiles of party and Brexit support.
Public opinion has appeared incredibly unified on the way into these extraordinary measures. But it’s vital to look beneath this overall sentiment. Understanding how different groups are reacting is crucial to both maintaining compliance and planning our best route out.
Given the very different experiences within the population already, it seems unlikely that we’ll see the same unity on the long road to exiting as we had with the sudden lockdown. Instead, growing poles of opinion seem more likely. The government is not going to please everyone, or be able to point to a blindingly clear “public will” that justifies its response.
Bobby Duffy, Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Policy Institute, King's College London and Daniel Allington, Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural Artificial Intelligence, King's College London