HJS ONLINE EVENT: Public Attitudes Towards the UK Government’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

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HJS ONLINE EVENT: Public Attitudes Towards the UK Government’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

18th May 2020 @ 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm

Event times are in BST


The United Kingdom (UK) is currently in second place behind the United States (US) in terms of the national number of COVID-19 deaths, and also ranks highly in terms of active cases. There are of course valid criticisms to be made about using ‘league tables’ without adjusting for population and other factors, but every life lost is a cause for concern, as the Prime Minister has himself recognised.

Despite the crisis, Boris Johnson’s recent personal net ratings sit firmly in positive territory and the ruling Conservative Party is consistently polling around – and in some cases over – the 50 per cent mark of support. While the government has received sustained criticism over its response to the coronavirus outbreak from various quarters in the scientific, business, media, and policy communities, these apparent shortcomings are by no means reflected in existing public opinion data. It appears the public broadly appreciates the approach the government has taken and is willing to rally round the flag for a challenge that affects us all.

So why is a notable portion of the British public generally supportive of the government and its key figures over its response of COVID-19? Which sections of the British society are the most and least supportive of the government’s lockdown measures? Are Brexit-Remain divides reflected in the relevant survey data? And are forms of long-standing anti-authority sentiment linked to negative perceptions of the UK Government’s COVID-19 management within certain social groups?

In order to help us get to the bottom of some of these questions, the Henry Jackson Society is delighted to welcome University of Kent academic Professor Matthew Goodwin, Freddie Sayers of UnHerd, and The Telegraph’s Madeline Grant for this timely online event.


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Professor Matthew Goodwin is an academic, bestseller writer and speaker known for his work on political volatility, risk, populism, British politics, Europe, elections and Brexit.

He is Professor of Politics at Rutherford College, University of Kent, Senior Visiting Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House and previously Senior Fellow with the UK in a Changing Europe.

You can follow Matthew on Twitter: @GoodwinMJ



Madeline Grant is Assistant Comment Editor at The Daily Telegraph and a Sunday Telegraph columnist.

You can follow Madeline on Twitter: @Madz_Grant



Freddie Sayers is the Executive Editor of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.

You can follow Freddie on Twitter: @freddiesayers



Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research fellow who sits in the Henry Jackson Society’s Centre on Social and Political Risk (CSPR). His PhD, obtained from Royal Holloway, University of London, investigated the impact of reported discrimination on political trust and democratic satisfaction, among British ethnic minorities. He has authored COVID19-related articles for a number of publications, including The Telegraph, CapX, and Spiked.

You can follow Rakib on Twitter: @rakibehsan



Events Summary:

In ‘Public Attitudes towards the UK Government’s Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic’, Dr  Rakib Ehsan chaired a panel of Professor Matthew Goodwin from the University of Kent, Madeline Grant from The Daily Telegraph, and Freddie Sayers from UnHerd to discuss the nuances in the UK public’s reactions towards the lockdown measures. The panel began with Professor Goodwin outlining the main trends in public attitudes as captured be polling over this period. First and foremost, there has been a rallying effect around Boris Johnson’s government indicating strong support for his government and for Johnson in particular to lead the country through the crisis. While Keir Starmer and the Labour Party have been polling better recently, much of this improvement has come from a warming of Liberal democrat voters and conservative remain voters, instead of building a “red bridge” to repair the heavy losses from the past elections. Sayers and Grant cautioned that the favourable results for the current government may not have staying power though as the UK begins to transition out of lockdown. Sayers and Grant agreed that this is due to public perceptions of a lack of confident leadership for transitioning out of lockdown. However, Professor Goodwin countered that it is important to remember where the UK is in terms of election cycles, and Boris Johnson’s ‘queuing power’ effect will always outshine Keir Starmer’s effect.

The panellists all agreed that polling has indicated some surprising attitudes towards the UK government’s response to Covid-19. The presumption was that the UK public would resist the lockdown measures, but in actuality this has proven to be false. Indeed, the UK public has embraced these measures and particularly the younger generations who are less affected by the virus. Driving this has been a comparatively high level of fear in the British public and at least some belief in the optimistic prediction that a vaccine will be available by September. Accordingly, some of the British Public believe they can “stick it out” for a few more months. This poses important questions to the UK government as it seeks to transition out of lockdown. Grant offered that the government has demonstrated it is paying very close attention to the polling. For example, this is seen by the decision to implement a 14 day quarantine measure for incoming travellers only recently as public demand was growing for it as opposed to several weeks ago when the measure may have been most effective. Accordingly, Grant cautioned that it is possible the UK government will extend the lockdown longer than is necessary due to public desire for such measures as the public is sheltered by the approaching economic effects through the government’s programs and measures.

However, not all of the UK is interested in having the measures prolonged. Indeed, Sayers offered that through UnHerd’s work, he has learned the opposition to lockdown is typically from a higher socio-economic background such as senior individuals from banks, lawyers, and professors. The “upper crust” is experiencing a cultural deprivation instead of an economic deprivation and this drives the demand to relax lockdown. However, this demand to ease lockdown is unlikely to take the form of protests as in other countries, but instead the lockdown will collapse ‘with a shrug’.

All three panellists agreed that the UK government has a steep challenge ahead of them when it comes to relaxing the lockdown. Because the government’s messaging has emphasised the deadliness of the virus, instead of speaking in terms of risk management, it will be very difficult for the public to understand why it is safe to transition out of lockdown. Accordingly, this early messaging may be responsible for the comparatively higher levels of fear in the British public which is driving the desire for the lockdown measures to continue. The panellists urged the UK government to take on a more nuanced messaging strategy. Whilst more difficult to convey than ‘Stay home; save lives’, a messaging strategy which frames the pandemic in terms of risk management will offer more success in the long term, especially if a vaccine is not available by September.


18th May 2020
6:00 pm - 7:00 pm


United Kingdom


Henry Jackson Society
+44 (0) 20 7340 4520


Professor Matthew Goodwin


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