Throughout the pandemic, polling data has shown strong public support for lockdowns. However, as someone who studies ambivalence and hypocrisy, I’m aware that finding general support for something sometimes glosses over how people truly feel. For example, ask people just about tax, and most will happily pay less. But ask people just about hospitals, and most will happily pay more.
Assessing an attitude from only one angle often hides the underlying tensions that exist, particularly with complex issues. For this reason, my colleagues and I wanted to understand not just whether people in Britain supported lockdowns, but also why, and how this fitted into their broader understanding of the trade-offs that come with such policies.
Among other things, having a more accurate picture of what people think and feel about lockdown restrictions could help predict how people will behave when England lifts restrictions on July 19.
Our research examined a public sample of 212 people, assessing their thoughts about lockdowns, first in June 2020, and again six months later. What we found somewhat contrasts with the polling data – people’s true thoughts and feelings about lockdowns are ambivalent and complicated.
The strong support for lockdowns seen in polls was replicated, yet most people we spoke to also stated that serious side-effects were happening, and that in many situations (such as those concerning mental health or delays to non-COVID health treatments) they felt these side-effects weren’t outweighed by the benefits of lockdowns. People were capable of holding conflicting positions.
People also told us they used lockdown policies as a cue to the severity of the threat posed by COVID-19. This was a logical thing to do, particularly in March 2020, when most people had little personal experience of the virus, nor a strong grasp on the uncertain emerging scientific picture. We also found the more participants did this, the more they supported lockdown measures, both at the start of the pandemic and subsequently.
We also found that participants’ support for lockdown measures was strongly predicted by their sense of COVID-19 being a general threat to the country or the world, but not by how much of a personal threat they perceived it to be to themselves or their loved ones. This questions how useful messaging aiming to increase the perception of COVID-19 as a threat to loved ones may have been.
What will happen after July 19?
These findings suggest that when England’s restrictions lift on July 19, people will, quite sensibly, infer that COVID-19 is not as severe a threat as it has been. This is potentially problematic given that cases, hospitalisations and deaths are rising in some parts of the UK.
And importantly, after the last 16 months, the magnitude of the shift of moving from pre-pandemic “normality” into lockdown cannot be replicated. Imagine if there is a reimposition of a lockdown for this or another public health threat. What will happen?
From one perspective, our research suggests people will use this as a signal that the threat has worsened again and act accordingly. However, from another perspective, the shift back to restrictions will simply not be as shocking. Therefore people may see the threat as less worrying compared with how they felt when lockdowns were first introduced, regardless of its actual severity.
But that’s the longer term. In the immediate future, we need to embrace the complexity of people’s views as things open up. If you are a sufferer of long COVID, have a clinically vulnerable loved one or have lost someone to the virus, it’s completely understandable to feel anxious about restrictions lifting.
Similarly, if lockdowns have affected your child’s mental health, made it impossible to pay the bills or put you at increased risk of domestic violence, it’s reasonable to want restrictions lifted. We all have different experiences and it’s crucial we empathise with each other as we interact more.
More broadly, we should also consider how useful general polling data is. It’s highly useful if we want to know, say, which political party people are likely to vote for, as the question and the behaviour closely match. But for more complex issues, as our research shows, we should be cautious about how we interpret simple polls, as there are consequences to stating people simply “support” or “oppose” a policy.
Such an interpretation risks presenting a polarised picture, where people can only be in one category – a risk exaggerated if methods discourage or exclude the “don’t knows”. This polarisation might be useful for a media narrative, to create sides and put simple numbers onto an argument. But combine this with the louder journalistic and social media voices, and we will appear more divided than we really are and encourage people to form into warring groups. If nothing else, the pandemic has shown that acknowledging complexity in a complex world is critical.
Colin Foad has received funding from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council.