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Through the keyhole: how households are interpreting the politics of the outbreak

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“The Government is keeping people updated every day. They are extending lockdown, for the better.”

“[The] Government knew from an emergency drill that there was a lack of PPE four years ago, but did nothing.”

We’re now in the fifth week of our coronavirus lockdown research. We’ve seen the unequal impact of the crisis, the social isolation of people forced to spend the lockdown alone, the power of communities and a total absence of FOMO. This week, we’ve looked at the politics of the crisis.

We last explored this with our 15 participants a month ago, in the first week of our study. Then, in the immediate aftermath of the decision to lock the country down, we saw evidence of the much talked about “rally round the flag” effect: there was widespread support for the Government response, amidst a spirit of national solidarity in the face of adversity.

Even participants who said that they were not naturally supportive of Boris Johnson or the Conservatives felt inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt: “They are not a government that I voted for, but I think some of the measures that [they] have put in place have been good.” In exceptional times, most believed that the Government was doing the best it could and said that any Government would be challenged by the speed, scale and severity of the outbreak: “I think the Government have an extremely tough job – there is no way they can cater to absolutely everyone but I think they are working super hard to get as close to this as they can.”

One month on, and various media reports suggested earlier this week that there had been a dramatic drop in public support for the Government’s handling of the crisis. Observers commented that the response to the crisis will make or break Boris Johnson’s premiership. There are two reasons to question these assertions.

Firstly, while the coronavirus outbreak undoubtedly represents a huge challenge for the Government on so many fronts, the evidence of a major shift in public opinion seems limited.

We’d expect the Prime Minister’s approval ratings to drop a little as the “rally round the flag” effect wears off (particularly now that he is back at work and the shock of his time in intensive care fades in our collective memories). And the falls reported in this week’s polls are relatively small – down six or seven percentage points from two weeks ago, but usually up a point or two from a month ago, depending on which polls you look at. They look more like a reversion to the mean than plummeting support. Time will tell.

Secondly, for the moment at least, public opinion on this unprecedented crisis looks very similar to on opinion other major recent issues – polarised and partisan. We’re certainly seeing this trend in our qualitative sample, where confirmation bias (our old friend) appears to be at work on both sides of the divide.

Participants who are positively inclined towards the current Government anyway see signs in the national response that confirm their favourable impressions. They talk about drastic and decisive action being taken quickly to protect the population, pointing to the initial decision to lock down and the provision of financial support for businesses and workers: “I cannot see that they can do anything more than they have already done.”

Whereas participants who don’t like the current Government can see all the evidence they need this Government is incompetent, irresponsible or even inhuman: basing their views on totemic issues such as shortages of ventilators and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), missed Cobra meetings or comparative global statistics on deaths linked to coronavirus: “The refusal to take equipment from the EU for political reasons was shocking.”

Views of the Labour Party’s response to the crisis – and in particular of Keir Starmer – follow a similar trend. Opponents of the Government have reacted positively to Starmer’s interventions since becoming leader – not least on the issues listed above. But Government supporters accuse him of “playing politics” at a time of national crisis. The most scathing liken him to the media, which stands accused of peddling a narrative to generate stories rather than rallying round the country at this time.

Alongside the two groups outlined above, there is of course also a third segment, who are less politically engaged and say that they are largely avoiding the political news at the moment – seeing the crisis as unprecedented, very difficult to plan for and tackle, and “not about party politics”. For the moment at least, they are not making any judgements about the political response to the crisis.

The coronavirus outbreak has prompted unprecedented changes to the UK, in a very short timeframe. Our study has highlighted how it is transforming many aspects of modern life, from social relationships to shopping. For the moment, however, public political opinion looks remarkably familiar to life in a pre-pandemic world.