Back in May, the first round of our public polling with Ipsos MORI highlighted the dramatic impact on our daily lives brought about by COVID-19 and the restrictions introduced to contain the virus. This reflected the public mood at the height of lockdown and shortly after the peak of the initial outbreak. 

As the government embarked on the impossibly complex task of keeping the virus at a low level while unwinding the lockdown, would concern about the virus remain, or be displaced by confusion and even frustration? To understand how public attitudes changed, we commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct a second round of polling in July. A representative sample of 2,246 adults in England, Scotland and Wales were interviewed by telephone between 17–29 July. 

With cases of COVID-19 beginning to pick up again, the chart story below sets out (another) five things we learnt from our latest polling.

In more detail

1. Support for the government’s handling of the outbreak has fallen substantially

Less than half of the public (43%) now thinks the UK government has handled the COVID-19 pandemic well, down from 60% in May. This was predictable – the ‘rally round the flag’ seen in many countries in the early months of the pandemic was never going to last forever. Since May, international comparisons have highlighted that the first wave of the virus hit the UK harder than neighbouring countries. The government has grappled with tough decisions about how and when to ease restrictions. And the UK is experiencing the worst recession since the Great Depression, with younger people particularly badly affected in terms of labour market and mental health outcomes. This may help to explain why our polling found 18–24s are less likely to say the government has handled the virus well, 30% compared to 43% overall. 

2. Official advice on what people need to do to contain the virus is not as clear as it needs to be

Confidence in the government is especially important now, when so much depends on the public following official advice on how to limit the spread of COVID-19. The mantra of ‘stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’ was admirably simple, but the guidance on what we could and couldn’t do gradually became more complicated as society started to reopen. So did people feel better informed by all this extra guidance or just plain confused? Our polling found that the clarity of the guidance varied, with the advice on meeting other people particularly unclear (less than half (44%) thought official advice on who and how many people you can meet was clear). This is concerning, as more people are thought to be following the rules in the areas where the public thinks the guidance is clearest. The introduction of the ‘rule of six’ and the new ‘hands, face, space’ campaign suggest the government is similarly concerned. If new restrictions are needed in the months ahead, clarity and tailoring communications to reach everyone will be essential.

3. Public confidence in using NHS services is returning, but one in five still feels uncomfortable about using their local hospital

Our polling found that 22% of the public would feel uncomfortable using their local hospital if they needed to, a substantial improvement from 47% in May. However, that one in five still feel uneasy accessing treatment is concerning. Particularly as people with a disability and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds – two of the groups worst affected by COVID-19 – are most likely to say they would feel uncomfortable. The pandemic has already caused a large backlog of unmet need and delayed access to health care, as Dr Becks Fisher highlighted recently. Concerns about exposure to the virus – the reason cited by 72% of those who would feel uncomfortable using local hospitals – must not be allowed to be an additional barrier to people getting help when they need it. With winter approaching, ensuring the NHS has everything it needs to protect patients and staff will be a major factor in rebuilding public confidence.

4. People are more likely to self-isolate if a human contact tracer asks them to, than if asked to by an app

Contact tracing apps are like buses, wait long enough and three come along (almost) at once. This month marked the delayed launch of the NHS COVID-19 app for England and Wales, hot on the heels of NHS Scotland’s app and nearly two months after Northern Ireland’s. While late is hopefully better than never, whether enough people will download the app and how effective it will prove as cases of the virus start rising remains to be seen. Not least because the government is yet to publish results from the pilots undertaken in Newham and on the Isle of Wight. In the meantime, our polling has both good and bad news for app aficionados. Public awareness of the app is higher than in May – 47% of people know a great deal or fair amount in July, up from 36% in May. However, the proportion of people who now say they are likely to download it has fallen to 52% – down from 62% in May. With public concern about the virus still high, well-publicised problems with developing an app may have dented confidence that it will be worth downloading. And, while a large majority of people (84%) say they would self-isolate if the app asked them to, even more (95%) would do so in response to a request from a human being. 

5. In ruling out a sector-specific route to enable international recruitment into social care roles, the government is out of step with public opinion

COVID-19 has taken a grim toll on adult social care services, and growing workforce shortages and much-delayed funding reform mean the system is on its knees. While EU workers are an increasingly important part of the workforce, the vast majority of adult social care roles will not qualify for a work visa under the new points-based immigration system due to be introduced in January 2021. The government has ruled out a sector-specific route to enable international recruitment into social care, on the basis that a fundamental overhaul of the system is planned. But the choice isn’t either/or and serious reform has been repeatedly promised and repeatedly delayed, most recently due to the pandemic. There’s also strong public support for a special ‘social care visa’ – our polling found three quarters (77%) of people support the idea, with majority support across all demographic groups. This is a policy that helps in the short-term, is popular with the public and doesn’t thwart longer-term plans – time for a rethink?

This content originally featured in our email newsletter, which explores perspectives and expert opinion on a different health or health care topic each month.

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