‘Coronavirus could kill half a million Britons and infect 80 per cent of the UK population.’ ‘The number of coronavirus cases in England is doubling each week.’ ‘At least six English NHS trusts could be overwhelmed this winter.’ ‘Long-term effects of coronavirus include damage to heart, liver, kidneys.’ ‘Don’t kill your gran by catching coronavirus and then passing it on. And you can pass it on before you’ve had any symptoms at all.’
‘Thank you for taking the time to complete our survey, Mrs Smith. My final question: do you support the government’s new lockdown rules?’
‘Yes. I do. In fact, I don’t think they go far enough.’
If there was a public examination in coronavirus, the nation would score an A+. After six long months, we know all the right answers. And, like any well-drilled school kid, we know exactly how to show our learning.
Last week, a snap YouGov poll showed that 78 per cent of Brits support the government’s latest round of coronavirus restrictions. They report that support for lockdown measures remains universally high irrespective of political party loyalties, and varies only slightly with gender and age. Indeed, the main criticism of the government’s new rules is that they are not strict enough. According to YouGov: ‘Approaching half (45 per cent) of Brits say the changes do not go far enough, compared to only a third (32 per cent) who say they are about right. Just one in eight (13 per cent) think they are too restrictive.’
This latest poll is no outlier. An Ipsos MORI survey conducted in early September claimed that half of those polled ‘feel the measures the government has taken do not go far enough and more should be done, compared to 37 per cent in May.’ An Opinium poll carried out for the Observer back in May showed that ‘Just one in five want schools, pubs and restaurants to be reopened’. And in April, research by a team at the University of Cambridge found that 87 per cent believed the lockdown should continue for at least another three weeks.
These polls matter. We know that the government’s response to coronavirus is shaped by a massive polling operation. Writing in the Sunday Times, Tim Shipman describes how, ‘Johnson’s government has four huge contracts in place to supply data around the clock, a large part of which is funded by taxpayers. Two vast surveys track public opinion every day and two firms conduct “six or seven” focus groups every week.’
We know from the speech he gave just last night, that Boris Johnson thinks polls indicate what ‘the British people want’. His not unreasonable conclusion: ‘I don’t think they want to throw in the sponge, they want to fight and defeat this virus and that is what we are going to do.’
But how accurate are opinion polls in revealing what the nation really thinks about lockdown and increased coronavirus restrictions? Might it just be possible that the opinion polls are calling it wrong?
We know from recent experience that polls are fallible. Take Brexit: 168 opinion polls were carried out between September 2015 and June 2016 but just 55 predicted a leave vote. That same year, opinion polls led US forecasters almost unanimously to predict presidential success for Hillary Clinton. The pollsters’ record at predicting the outcome of UK general elections has been equally as risible. In 2015, the polls had Labour and Conservative neck and neck for months. In 2017, a clear majority for Theresa May was predicted whereas in 2019, right up to the week before the election, polls suggested the result was ‘in the balance’.
There are many reasons why polls might not measure public opinion accurately. Sometimes pollsters rely too heavily on a narrow group of people: those with the time and inclination to take part. Even when measures are put in place to weight samples, they can only reflect the views of those who are asked in the first place. Sometimes, whisper it, people don't tell the truth. The phenomenon of the ‘shy Tory’ has been around for decades; people tell clipboard-wielding interviewers that they are ‘undecided’ rather than confessing their intent to vote for the Conservatives or for Brexit.
It’s just possible that in the UK we now have the ‘shy lockdown sceptic’. This is not to suggest that people are deliberately lying; rather that no one wants to admit, even to themselves, that they could be a potential ‘granny killer’. The statistics and headlines are scary – so we give pollsters the ‘right’ answers. But then, at the same time, people are increasingly acting in ways that show a far greater desire to resume normal life.
In the past 24 hours alone, Jeremy Corbyn has apologised for attending a dinner party with more than six guests and Boris’s dad was spotted shopping without a mask. A survey conducted by King’s College this week suggests that more than 80 per cent of people with Covid-19 symptoms or who have had contact with someone who has tested positive are ignoring self-isolation guidelines. A different study reports that nearly a third of West Yorkshire residents say they will break coronavirus lockdown rules to spend Christmas with their families. Most mums who, like me, have recently dropped students off at university would seem to concur. Indeed, if people are really so keen on lockdown rules, there would be no need for ever increasing fines.
When it comes to our response to coronavirus, there is a growing chasm between theory and practice. We know what we are supposed to say but we also know what we need to do to make our lives bearable. It’s time the government stopped relying on polls and started focusing on what people are actually saying and doing.