Public Attitudes Towards The UK Government’s Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Public Attitudes Towards The UK Government’s Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic

DATE: 18th May 2020, 6.00pm – 7.00pm

VENUE: Online

SPEAKERS: Matthew Goodwin, Madeline Grant, Freddie Sayers




Dr Rakib Ehsan 00:04

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us for tonight’s HJS online event looking at public attitudes towards the government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic, where we have some excellent panellists for today’s event. Firstly, we have Professor Matthew Goodwin. Matthew is an academic bestseller writer and speaker who is known for his work mainly on the British politics, Brexit and political volatility. He is currently a professor of politics at the University of Kent and a senior visiting fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and Chatham House.  We also have Madeline Grant, who is assistant comment editor at The Daily Telegraph and a Sunday Telegraph columnist. And last, but not least, we have Freddie Sayers who is the Executive Editor of Unheard, previously editor in chief of IU golf, and founder of Politics Home. So to kick us off, Matthew, I just thought that maybe just to help us open up the event. I think it would be good to just have a better understanding of the general trends in terms of public attitudes towards the towards the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, looking at particularly high levels of support for lockdown measures: where are the strongest levels of support within which sections of the British population, and indeed, where is support weakest within British society more broadly. Also, just to talk about whether there still any Brexit remain divides, (inaudible) when it comes to survey data in this field, and what this means for us more generally, when you look at those general trends.

Matthew Goodwin 01:51

Well, great. Thank you for the kind introduction. And thank you to everybody who’s taken the time out to join the discussion. I think obviously, it’s a potentially transformative moment for British politics. I think there’s lots of interesting things going on. In the polling, the general story is one of pretty strong public support for the incoming government of Boris Johnson and (inaudible) the current direction of travel. One of the first things that we saw during the crisis was sort of rallying around the flag effect with Boris Johnson’s government becoming really the first government for nearly 10 years to move into positive net ratings, which is quite remarkable. The 2010s you know, being so volatile and being so, so divisive and polarizing. We haven’t seen a government in net positive ratings since the conservative Lib Dem coalition. So Johnson managed to get his party back into his government back into that territory. And there’s also still very strong support in general for Boris Johnson himself to lead the country through the crisis. We’ve had a poll two days ago, asking voters who would they rather lead Britain through the crisis, Boris Johnson or case Tom Johnson has a 22-point lead. About 49% of voters say Johnson about 27 or so say Starmer and about 24% say I don’t know. So, you know, in very broad terms, and remembering the fact that we’re a long way from the next general election, things I would argue are actually okay for the Conservative Party. I will also point to the fact that, you know, obviously, there’s been quite a bit of excitement about KSR on Twitter. And we certainly seen the government approval ratings begin to slide over the last 10 days. And we can see, in a couple of polls, kids started doing a bit better. One thing we need to remember is Labour’s challenge with political geography, right. The Labour Party is currently already holding a large number of socially liberal middle class professional areas. And so many people who are pointing to care standards, improved ratings, liberal democrat voters, or perhaps conservative remain voters are also missing the fact that actually that’s not the territory that Labour really needs to win back. Labour really needs to build a red bridge to the red wall if it’s going to have a shot, because it already holds a large portion of the sort of remain territory if you like in the UK. And so far, we’ve not really seen much from Starmer in terms of how he intends to do that or use a crisis to do that, although he has made some interesting appointments around public policy. But I think more generally, there are a number of ways in which this crisis actually could deeply impact on UK politics, even if we don’t currently acknowledge how that how that is manifest. I think one particular area relates to just the sheer size of the state that we’re going to have after this crisis. So if you are a fiscal conservative or if you are a libertarian, you are fully in retreat right now, you are going to come out of this crisis facing one of the largest states big government, you know, that we’ve really had since the Second World War. We’re going to see government spending spiral; we’ve already seen nearly 1/3 of private sector employees effectively being bankrolled by the state. And that’s going to have all kinds of implications, politically, not least in terms of who pays for all of this, and how is a new tax agenda, not only going to be designed and implemented, but which section of society is going to pick up that tab, given that we’ve got the Conservative Party that is now much more dependent upon working class voters in any Conservative Party really since Thatcher. So, who’s going to pick up that tab? Who’s going to pay for it? And how can the state effectively be pushed back so that it doesn’t remain as big and bloaty and dominant as it is at the moment.  That’s going to be a really difficult balancing act, both for Boris Johnson and also for the Chancellor. You know, if you look at this through a historic lens, you know, the sort of failure of the markets in the interwar period 1929 paved the way for a much bigger state with the new deal in the US and welfare states in Europe and Thatcherism. And Reaganism really brought that to a close and sort of put free market capitalism on steroids. And fast-forward to the great recession and the great lockdown, those two are really bringing big government back into the mix. And I was struck this week by some polling looking at generation Zed.  My students, you know who by the time they turn 25, will have already lived through two major financial crises and the global pandemic, that 70% of Gen Zed now look to government for solutions, not individuals, but government. And that’s quite different from, say, the silent generation Generation X and baby boomers who looked much more to individual responsibility. So, one impact of this crisis, right, given that we’ve got recent generations that will have seen the state come to the rescue in the Great Recession. And then we’ll have seen the state come to the rescue in the great lockdown. I think one of the fascinating questions as well is, are they then going to hold on to these more sort of big state activist pro-government views throughout their life? Will that have quite a strong cohort effect? And if it does, how’s that going to reshape conservativism? Or conversely, how are conservatives going to restate the case for individual responsibility in free market capitalism? And that’s quite a new dilemma, right? That’s going to be quite a new generational, not a culture war, but a big political conflict that’s going to be bubbling underneath. I think the other thing that we can see in the polling is a complete collapse of economic confidence. People will become much more pessimistic about the direction of the country. And I think, in essence, what we’re likely to see over the next five years or so, I mean, it’s wonderful in these moments of crisis, you can just speculate wildly about what’s going to happen. But one thing that I do really think is going to happen is we’re going to see the old left, right, questions of economic redistribution, come back with a bang. So we’re going to start to see really heated debates about taxation, inequality, who gets what, and I think bubbling away underneath this crisis has been, once again, this divide between, you know, the wealthy and left behind workers and whether that’s reflected in the debate about Richard Branson, whether it’s reflected in the decision by the French and the Danish in the polls to say we’re not going to bail out companies that choose to locate in offshore tax havens, whether it’s reflected in the debates about, you know, professional middle classes with professional middle class voters with second homes in Cornwall and Devon. One of the interesting things about the crisis, at least for me, was that the isolation and the social distancing initially was all compulsory. But now it’s going to become voluntary, and then it will become an economic luxury. And for my pals, who are in the construction industry on the tube everyday now, the conversation genuinely is this is not a fair settlement. Given that, you know, professional middle-class workers are much better able to work from home and are having a fundamentally different experience of this crisis. So how will that feed into and exacerbate some of the underlying social and economic divides? I think that’s an open question. You know, sometimes I think all that stuff is overblown. But other times when you look at ONS data this week on those groups being especially susceptible to higher rates of mortality in the working age population, it’s those same groups who have also realigned around the Conservative Party, and who also were fundamental to driving the political changes of the last decade. So I think that is something to keep in mind too. And just another sort of brief thought about kind of where you know, where this all sort of, you know, moves in the future. One of the things that the Labour Party needs to be very careful about when you look at the polling is it’s quite clear that people are open to the opposition providing scrutiny. But what they’re not enthusiastic about is an opposition party that seem to be criticizing, for criticisms sake, if that makes sense. The vast majority of people in the polling have pretty consistently said they’re open to the Labour Party, you know, asking forensic questions at PMQs are open for more transparency. But primarily, they want people to be on side with the government as we go through this crisis. And I think even now, while we’re seeing frustration, kicking around the communication, around lockdown, which was not by any means perfect, or really strong, I think there are lots of problems with it. Even still, I think the default position among most voters is like this isn’t ideal. But essentially, we are in this together and we need to sort of rally around and try and get through this. Keir Starmer has somewhat of a difficult balancing act in in dealing with that. And of course, you can see all the usual dividing lines underneath the surface between remainders and leavers, leavers being much more supportive of the government being much more open to it. But I think in a way, the remain-leave division now is somewhat secondary to this debate, because there is so much within the Brexit issue now that can get wrapped up in the effects of COVID-19. Both the fiscal effects of Brexit, right are out the window. I mean, you can just simply say part of the big COVID-19 crisis or Coronavirus crisis is that, you know, this has created wholesale economic damage. And a lot of those issues relating to Brexit can sort of be folded into some of that. I mean, the public appetite for having a big debate over the transition deal, I don’t think is there. Nor is a public appetite there to have an intricate debate about, you know, the extension where there is public appetite in the polling is to have a serious debate about China. And some of the things that I was tweeting this afternoon around, we had another poll last night about what most voters want to see happen with regards to China.  75% want to see pressure brought on China for an independent investigation led by an international team. The vast majority do not believe data relating to cases and deaths coming out of China, and 51% are open to the idea of pushing China to pay in quotes and reparations for the global economic fallout of the crisis. One kind of hypothesis that will linger on and perhaps the other speakers may want to play around with this, is that this crisis isn’t just changing our relationship with the state; it’s not only likely to change the issues that dominate British politics over the next three to five years. I think it’s also going to fundamentally and permanently reshape how we think about China, which will not only be seen as an economic competitor but will actually be seen as a systemic challenge. That is much more around values and ways of life. And we’ve not really discussed systemic threats since the Cold War. We’ve talked about militant Islamism and so on but nothing in terms of a coherent challenge to, in quotes, the western liberal order. And I think that has the potential, coupled with a messy US election in the autumn and an increasingly polarized debate in parts of Europe, to actually turn into something that might be worth watching.

Dr Rakib Ehsan 14:02

No, thank you, Matthew. Let’s go to Freddie Sayers. And if you just look at the Covid-19 pandemic more broadly, would you say there’s been a further exposure of any social tensions within British society? Is the argument that the blue-collar experience is going to be very different to the white-collar experience of the Covid-19 pandemic? Do you think there is a sense of people perhaps, possibly not being particularly understanding of the experience of other social groups in British society, in terms of how their experience is fundamentally different to their own?

Freddie Sayers 14:46

Yeah, I think Matthew did a really great big picture of the policing of where we are now. And if we can zoom in a bit at the last two months, I don’t remember anyone predicting that the public opinion would be like it is, at this point, if you remember what now feels like a lifetime ago. When Boris Johnson was first introducing those lockdown measures, you know, the presumption was that the public would resist them. And he was talking about how we got to get the timing right is the so-called nudge unit had told him that, you know, there’s only about a three-week window that people will put up with this, and then they’ll get bored of it. And so fast forward eight weeks, this was pretty much where we are now. And the exact opposite has happened, which is that people have in this country, more than other countries just sort of accepted this, the lockdown measures, and whether they’ve got used to it, whether they, some people like it, whether they just are fearful, I think is an interesting question. But, you know, coming out of this, things look very different to how they did coming in. There was some polling recently comparing British attitudes to Swedish and German and American. And it’s really quite dramatic – the degree to which the Brits are not keen to come out of lockdown. You know, why has this happened? I think partly, it’s political in some sense, you know, I’m half Swedish. So I do pay attention to what goes on in Sweden and there are various differences, but the fact that we here have a kind of center right government, and the sort of calls for lockdown initially came from the center left. We then kind of adopted by the right means that there’s not really a group resisting it. So there’s not a kind of political lobby against it. And I think the fact that Boris Johnson himself became so ill definitely changed the atmosphere and probably fast-forwarded the whole process, which affected public opinion. And I think the way people thought about this threat, just fundamentally shifted gear during that period. I think that’s another reason why we are now sort of on the more fearful end of the spectrum. I think as we come out of it, suddenly, the government is going to need to find a different way of talking. I guess where I would differ from, Matt, is that I think that potentially could be in trouble. Further down the line it’s yes, they’ve had great polling numbers, there’s a lot of support, there was that moment of real subnational togetherness, but things seem to be changing quite rapidly. And the support for the government is sliding away. I’m sure we will see that support for the Conservative party starts to be chipped away in coming weeks. Because essentially, there doesn’t seem to be a kind of confident leadership for taking us out of lockdown. It’s almost like the Prime Minister is fighting a fight that he can’t sort of enunciate. You can’t find the words for it seems to me. I think the public opinion will continue to change in the weeks to come. And I don’t think things are different that rosy for the government on that front.

Dr Rakib Ehsan 18:36

Thank you. Madeline. Obviously, I’ve seen some of your writings on the lockdown measures. More broadly, you’ve been you’ve been quite critical of some aspects. And building on what Freddie said there is there is some data survey data emerging now which shows that support for the government’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is somewhat on the on the way. I was just wondering whether you why you think that is? And how would you rate the government’s management of the pandemic, especially maybe perhaps in the last couple of weeks?

Madeline Grant 19:12

Well, I think a number of chickens are coming home to roost for the government, because I think for quite a long time, it has had a policy, it’s not entirely the fault of government. It’s also the fact that the man who’s running the country has been taken seriously ill is probably still knackered and recovering. And there has been an absence of leadership and the whole cabinet was kind of set up in such a way that would give Boris Johnson in his inner circle maximum power. So there’s been a power vacuum there, for sure. But I think what it shows since then, is that it’s incredibly reactive to public opinion. And it’s been keeping a close eye on the survey data, which is a spreadsheet that I’ve been saying it’s incredibly pro-lockdown, way more pro-lockdown than any of us expected. And it turned out that you know, this this idea of kind of Anglo-exceptionalism, bloody-minded Britishness just wasn’t a thing. You know, we are more compliant than the French. But government has made a number of decisions that suggest that they are looking at what the survey says and kind of going on that basis. And, for example, when they decided to ground flights and impose quarantines, they did that quite late in the day.  If you weren’t wanting to impose a policy like that you would have done so quite in the pandemic. And now just at the time when you would want to be somewhat relaxing the regulations and perhaps stimulating some economic activity, they put it in now. I think it’s because that’s a policy that performs well on polling. And coupled with keeping that kind of policy going in the long run, is that eventually, the public does not care what their view was of the policy at the time that it was implemented, the government always gets the blame for it. You know, we forget that at the time that we went, we did the Iraq War, there was a majority doing that. And it doesn’t matter in the end what the public thought at the time, because the government that did it will always get the blame. So I really think they need to start thinking in a longer sense, and perhaps looking more at what the evidence says rather than imposing policies, like the decision to quarantine flights.  Some of the decisions they made with the NHS, I think have been heavily influenced by the fact that they know that the public love the NHS, and particularly with it now they have become the kind of blue light labor, red Tory party, they know, they have to be seen to be taking great care of the NHS, but I think it’s that attention for the opinion polls that led them to make some quite bad decisions, including sending patients into care homes without testing them first, for COVID, which meant that there was an outbreak in nursing homes. And that suggests, to me, an idea of anything must be sacrificed so that we can protect the NHS, which is in itself been overly determined by public opinion. So I think the government would do better, I think, to take a longer term view of things. They have, as already said, they’ve had a very high level of compliance until recently. And I think there’s that that compliance with the lockdown isn’t going anywhere. But it may well be that because we currently have things like a furlough scheme in place, that many people are being shielded from the economic reality that will be coming down the road for them. What we’re going through right now is the kind of the phony war before the real thing gets going. So I very much agree with you that I think they’ve got a lot of serious problems that we’ll be heading down the line for them. And they cannot simply create policy based on the fluctuations of opinion polls.

Dr Rakib Ehsan 22:39

I just want to bring Matthew back in for the in terms of this idea that in terms of the government’s management of the pandemic. Matthew, do you see that there’s a serious opening for the opposition Labour Party because as you know, Sir Keir Starmer tries to adopt this forensic approach. Do you think that the government at the moment is still in the Conservative Party. But do you see that? Do you see the potential for that to even potentially evaporate in the in the coming months?

Matthew Goodwin 23:28

I think I think we can always dwell too much on polling. And we have to remember where we are in the election cycle. And we are a long way away from the next election, which is why I might seem a little bit more chilled out about some of the polling. I think if you look at the big argument now in a sort of political science, what really matters is competence and whether voters think that you’re competent, during periods of crisis, right. And it was New Labour’s failure during the financial crisis that essentially paved the way for Cameron. And, you know, it was it was a failure of similar governments around the world to manage these key crucial moments that opened the door to opposition. I suppose in the back of my mind, there were a few things that that lead me to be a little bit more relaxed about where the Conservative Party is. One is that voters have been exposed to a very different vision of conservativism during this crisis. Now, a lot of people might disagree with me, but one of the one of the few winners of this crisis has been the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who has done phenomenally well and has cut through in the public imagination. A lot of people have said, actually, you know, this guy seriously impressive. The other thing is that this crisis will allow the Conservative Party to do, if it’s clever, is to come out of the other side with a different narrative about how it seems. This is a party that is going to be able to turn around and say, actually, when it came to the crunch, we spent the best part of 300 billion, you know, keeping people in work, and doing all that we could to extend the various schemes and programs to try and help people navigate this crisis. And so, you know, 2023 and 2024 from here is a long way away. And obviously, there’s a lot that can go wrong. But lastly, what really makes a difference in politics is that leaders have powerful queuing effects. And my instinct is that for all of the things that Boris Johnson has got wrong in this crisis, or all of the things that he’s communicated poorly during this crisis, and for all of the ways that he’s underestimated Kier Starmer during this crisis. Actually, he’s still got a much heavier punch when it comes to those queueing effects than Kier Starmer, in my view, will ever have. And I think on top of all of those things, I then just simply look at the political geography, which is in order for there to be any seismic change at the next election, which is, you know, not to say these issues around the crisis are not legitimate because it’s entirely valid, that we interrogate all of them. But it’s just so incredibly difficult from this point for the opposition to get into a place where they can regain power. I hope that the Conservative Party can try and shut down some of the avenues that Freddie and Madeline are rightly pointing to, but for me at the moment, it’s caution, not catastrophe.

Dr Rakib Ehsan 26:49

So we’re just going to take some questions now. Firstly, we go to Euan Grant. Before you ask your question, could you please make sure that you are unmuted before you ask your question? Thank you.

Euan Grant 27:12

Yeah, I’d just like to ask what surprised you about the reactions across the communities and you’ve all alluded to and sorry for the Robinson Crusoe beard. It’s been a long lockdown. Have the reactions, divided along, conventional, if there is such a thing, generational divisions, or demarcations and the same, left, right. Have the reactions across all of society surprised you?

Dr Rakib Ehsan 28:02

Matthew, could you start us off on that?

Matthew Goodwin 28:05

I was actually going to suggest that might be better for the other speakers. I’ve not seen much in in the polling that surprised me. There’s been a little bit of sorting. We’re seeing a lot of the Labour voters that abandoned Corbyn go back to the Labour Party, which partly explains Labour’s elevation over the last week a lot of undecided Labour voters who were dubious about Corbin seem to be in quotes coming home. And he seems to be doing quite well among disgruntled Liberal Democrat voters, which is something that the Conservatives need to pay attention to. But Freddie and Madeline may have thoughts on that as well.

Freddie Sayers 28:45

I mean, a couple of things that had surprising one is the age difference. You’re talking about generations. And one thing that is notable, it’s not a huge effect but it is observable, is that older generations i.e. the people who are most vulnerable to this disease are the least convinced by the lockdown measures. I mean, everyone is, you know, we’re talking about big majorities here, but there’s still an effect that it’s the younger generations, oddly, who are most kind of militant about those measures. That’s one thing that’s kind of interesting. That is linked I think to the politics in that there’s a there’s a sort of liberal progressive idealist atmosphere to the whole kind of test, track and trace policy. The whole idea of you know, suppressing a disease forever or until a virus comes you know, it’s something that’s never been tried before and I think it naturally appeals you look at America which is what we hoped we don’t become but if you want to see what kind of caricaturist way (inaudible) that’s what they’ve got, and it’s very much become the progressives are in favour of, you know, (inaudible). We’re going to keep lockdowns till Christmas is all of that. And it’s the red states as Conservatives who are resisting that and trying to open things up quicker. I think that, you know, inevitably there’s a little bit of politics in terms of one’s actual fundamental political attitudes that does come into this. And older people tend to have a bit more of a kind of philosophical, small C, conservative attitude to the world is the way it is, and we can’t sort of remake it entirely, or it’s too late to or whatever. That sense of something has been quite interesting to look at.

Madeline Grant 30:39

Yeah, so I haven’t seen any detailed analysis of how it shapes up at a kind of leave vs. remain perspective in terms of the general public. But in terms of the kind of commentariat, who are involved, I mean, it’s really descending into something of a culture war. And in the sense that it’s, you know, it does often seem to be heavily aligned with the way that you voted in the referendum. And there are some obvious exceptions to this, I think, my personal view, and I’m biased, because I’m a kind of classic liberal, and is that it’s a kind of freedom, the authority thing. So you will get some authoritarian Tories who support the lockdown as well. And so you’ll get more of an overview of the kind of, I guess, the sort of one nation Tory paternalistic, or more in favour of lockdown measures. And you’ve also seen a few of the like, kept sort of liberal small liberal types who have who have been on the opposite side of these people for the for the Brexit debate, people like, I suppose, Matthew Paris or Lord Adonis. People like this, who were very much on the other side of the Brexit debate, but they are also concerned about civil liberties. And I guess, you know, smaller liberals. So they are back on the same side as some unlikely compatriots. But I think that there is a sort of generational element to it to which you can actually notice if you look at cultural behaviour towards the lockdown now, and I was reading about the 1968, Hong Kong flu epidemic, which killed something like 80,000 people in Britain, over the course of 18 months, I was chatting to my mom who could remember it well, about what that was like. And she said, “You know, there was a strong sense of alarm it there were lots of newspaper headlines, and some schools did shut down. But there wasn’t this thing of all schools shutting down all at once.” But there was, just it was very far from the kind of mass panic there is now. There was no thought of the kind of controls that have been implemented now. And I think that something has changed in the popular psychology since then, in general, I mean, I don’t know what the what the reason for that is, I suspect, it’s probably there’s been, there’s been a kind of paranoid parenting style that’s been in place since the 90s. Probably tons of other cultural reasons, but it’s hard to disentangle. But back in 1968, I think the public would have risen up and said no to the kind of restrictions that people are very happily, very amiably going along with in such a way that has surprised the politicians.

Freddie Sayers 33:15

I mean, I think just on the sort of class aspect that you had mentioned, or, you know, which were cuts in that net respect. And, you know, you can make really good arguments that I think are very persuasive with that this actually falls most heavily on lower income people, like you mentioned. And I think that will become increasingly true over time. But there’s also the reverse effect, which I’ve really noticed, which is that, since we’ve been doing a bunch of interviews on heard with, with people who think differently, and anyone who sort of comes up and has a sort of anti-lockdown position, I suddenly get hundreds of emails. And I noticed that they’re not there. They’re not the sort of conspiracy theory a lot that I might have thought. And actually, they’re very kind of senior individuals from banks, his professors, those kind of people. And it’s suddenly sort of made me realize that the upper crust is really not liking lockdown. You know, they’re used to going on there, how they’ve got Tuscany booked in that you think they should be doing three international trips by now. And they find it sort of offensive? Well, so I don’t think you see that. So there’s a there’s a sort of dual effect going on.

Matthew Goodwin 34:41

Can I just briefly on that? Because I think John Gray wrote a nice piece on Unheard. (inaudible) I read last week about that point that, you know, they’re not what he called the knowledge classes are sort of mourning a loss of culture more than more than economics in the sense that you know, they have (inaudible). You feel as though, you know, they’re not able to go to the gallery, they’re not able to go out for dinner, they’re not able to do all of these things. But they’re still fundamentally much higher up the hierarchy of needs than lower income voters who are, you know, really in the trenches of this, and I think that could yet have powerful effects. But to build on a point that Madeline raised, and I thought was really intriguing one, which is actually in a way, this government sort of is beginning to look a bit anxious about giving people into allowing people to practice individual responsibility. And I think that’s going to be the defining moment for this Conservative government, which is, does it actually have faith in individuals to navigate some of these decisions for themselves? Or is it going to sort of try and adhere to this more sort of collectivist ethos, which seems to have captured the Zeitgeist at this moment, whereas lots of people are out there saying, actually, I want to go and make these decisions for myself. Now, I want to exercise common sense. And that that could be a much deeper value, conflict, that sort of bubbles away for quite a while.

Madeline Grant 36:11

Yeah. And that’s why the focus on opinion polls that I think the Tories are engaging in now could ultimately be disruptive to them, because it may well be that they maintain the lockdown for longer than is necessary, because they think it’s what the people want. And they get their messaging wrong. So they fail, fail to instil that sense of personal responsibility and common sense, it’s actually quite difficult to roll back from a position where you’ve been saying to people, we stay home do this, you need detailed guidance. I think the plumber, who got that plumber, who went viral recently was saying, “we don’t need a handbook to live our lives.” But if they do attempt to impose handbook for a long time, it then becomes very difficult to craft an exit narrative. And when you’ve been treating people like morons for six months or whatever, it’s quite difficult to suddenly go from being the nanny country to being Sweden, you can’t just do that overnight. And but the point about, I think that point about passport and resentment is interesting one, because there’s been another slightly odd alliance that I’ve noticed has been in the battle against school openings. And it seems to be overwhelmingly the members of the professional middle class. And who were kind of backing the teachers, it’s often people who are not having a particularly horrible lockdown themselves. And it’s for them, it’s much easier to teach their children at home, they have nice working spaces, they’re often highly educated themselves. And they don’t realize the kind of agony it can be for families who are in cramped accommodation or whatever. And, and in a weird way, Labour has a choice now about whether it wants to be on the side of all workers, or the kind of just the trade union workers who are agitating against going back to school, because, I know an awful lot of people who have kids who are struggling, and they’re absolutely furious, and they’re losing patience with the teachers actually. And if Labour chooses to side with the trade unions, it’s almost like it has a choice about whether it wants to be the kind of the Labour Party of the 90s that kind of spoke for bigger sections of the economy or if it wants to remain trapped in that kind of Corbin way of thinking where the only worker who counts as someone who’s in a trade union, and there are lots of people on low incomes who are struggling to you know, often frontline workers who are really struggling to educate their kids. I think they are losing patience with the teachers at the moment.

Dr Rakib Ehsan 38:27

Thank you, Madeline. So we have a next question from John Dobson? This is locked in could you kindly unmute yourself before asking your question please. Thank you.

John Dobson 39:08

Thank you very much. Just wondering if the current pandemic where we all love the NHS might soften a little bit the hard-line immigration stance taken by Priti Patel and others I’ve heard some absolute nonsense from them regarding nursing homes. I speak as a former nursing home-owner operator and there was absolutely no way that I could operate without having a long stream of extremely well qualified but lowly paid people from all sorts of places around the world. If I had had to operate with the current policy, I would have to close down and re-center 100 or 200 patients back into hospital.

Dr Rakib Ehsan 39:59

Okay, thank you. Madeline, would you like to start us on that question?

Madeline Grant 40:02

It’s an interesting question. Because on the one hand, we know that we have a social care crisis. And the extent of it, I think has been exposed quite massively in in this recent pandemic, where it’s clear that many care homes felt that they were not receiving the help and support that they needed. And it was also clear, I think that the government was quite willing to not think through things through very carefully in order to create capacity in the NHS and kind of pulling the problem off onto the care homes. And so I’m a bit conflicted, because on the one hand, I can see that the I think the general trajectory of life after Coronavirus is going to be much as I’m disappointed about that, individually, I think it’s going to be less international, more nativist. And people will be, you know, I think, anti, there won’t be the kind of people want to see supply chains, reorienting themselves, so it’s all a bit closer to home. And I could see that kind of over feeding into a more of an anti-immigrant sentiment. But on the other hand, if you look at the polling on this generally, since the vote to leave the EU, the public has stopped has warmed to the idea of immigration. And I think given what we’ve seen in the last few weeks, and the difficulties facing the sector, it would not be a hard sell politically, to be able to simply add, let’s say you add the care home workers and NHS staff to a different tier that doesn’t get tallied up in the same way, I think it’d be quite actually quite easy for the government to sell that to the public. And there are two types of immigration that really bother people. And then people, the public’s much more comfortable with others. And I think after this crisis, people will be feeling quite warm towards the idea of immigration for care workers and NHS staff.

Freddie Sayers 41:45

There’s two answers to that question. I think that’s right, like that traditional kind of red-Tory blue-labour sort of answer is that, you know, you’ve been employing these people from immigrant backgrounds on, as you say, highly qualified and not paid very much. And, you know, I hear from David good hearts voice in my ear saying, “well, you know, we should be training up our own people, and we should be paying them more.” And we should be making it more prestigious, and there should be nursing bursaries. And there can be social care bursaries, and there should be a big project to kind of have a homegrown workforce, that will sort of help to take some of that burden. But you know, the other side of it is what we all saw in Boris Johnson’s speech on the kind of moment when he came out of hospital, listing out the names of the nurses and the people who had helped him it was Luis from Portugal, and it was Jenny from New Zealand and the rest of it. And quite clearly, he is not about to sort of preside over a kind of contraction of visas for those jobs. And I think the expectation should be that there will be some relaxing of that going forward. But I mean, final thought is how much will this whole coffee thing affect immigration levels? You know, we don’t know that when we emerge from it could be a very different conversation. You know, there’s this presumption that in this sort of unlimited numbers of people who are wanting to come here, and we always have to kind of fight to keep them away. It may be that people move around a lot less for a period after this. And we might, we might, the whole landscape of the immigration question might look very different.

Dr Rakib Ehsan 43:27

Thank you, Freddie. Matthew, do you have any thoughts to add?

Matthew Goodwin 43:30

I think I think Fred is absolutely right. I mean, it’s important that we remember that migrant workers in the NHS, what were really always one of the one of the most popular groups within the country, when it came to the immigration, immigration debate alongside international students. They always had two groups that essentially voters really didn’t really want to have a debate about. The main cause of concern prior to the 2016 referendum was low skill, migration outside of the NHS and care homes and, and in a way, the if again, if the government is smart and clever, then it will be able to not use this crisis but navigate through this crisis pointing out that it skill based policy can quite easily be tweaked in a way that recognizes and reflects the realities of this crisis, while also delivering sort of responsible responsive immigration policy, not forgetting the demands and requests from voters over the last three or four years. The one sector that is yet to really be debated nationally, that I think is going to become a huge debate is higher education and the role in which migration is actually now going to have a seismic or the lack of migration as Freddy rightly points out, is going to have a seismic impact upon Britain’s universities, which of course, have always been one of its greatest pull factors, you know, the universities have been an incredible source of soft power for this unit for this country. And they are going into headlong into the biggest crisis that they have ever faced. And we’ve yet to really discuss that. Nationally, we’ve had a couple of op-eds and a few little newspaper pieces here and there. But in the next year or two, we will be debating institutions going bust and how much support and financial assistance we should be giving them. And I’m not talking about medium low-tier institutions, I’m talking about top level institutions – the better ones that have the bigger problem because they have attracted more internationally.

Dr Rakib Ehsan 45:45

So move on to our next question. Our next question is from William Claxton Smith. Mr. Smith, could you kindly unmute yourself before you ask your question, please? Thank you.

William Claxton-Smith 45:53

Hi, my question has already been, in part touched upon in the discussion. And the question I was going to ask, is the panel surprised by the desire of the British population to have prescriptive guidance rather than being allowed to use their common sense? There seems to be a poll yesterday saying three people to one, one visit more for more guidance rather than less guys. I just wonder whether the population is behaving in the way you would have expected.

Dr Rakib Ehsan 46:27

Madeline, I can see it chuckling away there. Maybe you can start us off in terms of answering Mr. Smith’s question.

Madeline Grant 46:33

Yeah, sure. I must admit, I was somewhat taken aback by the lack of opposition to it. And it’s not just the lack of opposition at the time, because I think at the time, a lot of people thought this isn’t going to last a lot for very long. And we were hearing terrifying figures coming out of Imperial College. And I think the government at that point presented with that information did exactly the right thing. But the fact that that the level of compliance has stayed so steady, that almost a third of the population favours a kind of almost indefinite lockdown. Even if the government met were to meet the five tests, which, you know, is a difficult thing for easing restrictions, they weren’t locked down to continue. And I’m a bit concerned, that there was faster, bigger slice of the country who seems to think that a vaccine is coming around the corner.  It’s just a case of waiting it out for a few more months, I used the analogy of the phoney war earlier. And I think there’s going to be quite a big awakening when people realize that this is going to be with us for a lot longer, there’s no guarantee of a vaccine. If we were to get one in September, as has been suggested from Oxford, it would hold the record for the quickest expediting of a vaccine in human history. So we really shouldn’t pin our hopes on that at all. Ultimately, it’s something that we will have to live with in some way. And which will either mean depending on the approach we take, that could mean intermittent lockdowns, or living in a very different way for you know,18 months or possibly more than that. So I think that level of support is based on a false premise. And the furlough scheme has kept people insulated from the financial harm that’s coming their way. And I’ve just also seen a question that kind of relates to this that I wanted to raise.  Somebody could see that Mr. Steven Castle is astonished that Freddie and I have said that we thought that the UK has been more compliant than the French. And the reason I actually think that is the case. It’s a combination of the French police state being a bit more authoritarian than ours, but also the French population perhaps having a bit more fighting in them. And since the second epidemic, the UK police have levied something like 9,000 fines. And the French police have levied something like 920,000. So I think that’s a measure of the fact they have undertaken more authoritarian lockdown measures, but there’s also quite a lot of non-compliance going on there. And whereas in general, (inaudible) if you look at their polling with among the most terrified people in in the world right now that doesn’t really seem to be dissipating anytime soon.

Freddie Sayers 49:09

I went on my government licensed daily exercise on Saturday, in round central London on my bicycle. And I went straight past the Hyde Park protest, which was basically Piers Corbin, the brother of Jeremy Corbyn, and a few of his mates and a lot of policemen. And it just did not look convincing. And I really thought this, this is not going to now become a great big kind of upswell of people protesting. I then cycled it further down to Green Park. And there, it was a kind of very different, very much more English style of rebellion, which was people gently and good humouredly ignoring things. So, you know, you saw groups of two and four and six, they were blatantly having picnics. There was music playing, nobody seemed to be interrupting them. And I suddenly thought, if the whole lockdown is going to collapse, it’s not going to collapse in a kind of upswell of rage and protests on the street, it’s going to collapse with a shrug. And people just sort of doing whatever they think is sensible. And that will suddenly be the end of it.

Dr Rakib Ehsan 50:22

Matthew, anything to add on that?

Matthew Goodwin 50:25

No, I think I largely agree. I mean, one thing I would say is that, you know, never look at the response to this crisis and think this is somehow at odds with Englishness, I mean, in a way is quintessentially English, we’re still incredibly deferential to our institutions and to our political leaders. And even if it begins to sort of dissipate and loosen around the edges, as the government sort of finds its way out of this crisis, I think on the whole we’ve remained quite a deferential lot, you know. I mean (inaudible) talked about as having a classic civic culture. And I think in a way that has been completely reaffirmed by this crisis. It has been incredibly neighbourly, social capital has been the big winner of this crisis. The endless WhatsApp groups, there are sort of four in my immediate neighbourhood. I mean, it’s almost overload. You know, social capital is on steroids. I mean, remember when we talked about societies Bowling Alone? This is a renaissance of that. And I think that’s going to be really interesting. And just something fascinating that Madeline mentioned that; I wonder if we’ll come back and look at this later in the year, there has been bubbling away underneath Brexit and this crisis. And I think, I agree completely with Madeline; this crisis has become a sort of proxy battle over Brexit in some ways. So you’ve seen the kind of declinist view come to the fore, which is that, you know, Britain cannot handle this crisis. Britain is a third, fourth right nation, yada, yada, yada, you know, Boris Johnson, and the great pretenders in number 10, all of this kind of stuff. What if we do get there in terms of the vaccine, this year or the next year? What if one of our institutions is the key player in developing and designing and making that possible? What a great sort of reminder of the great entrepreneurial spirit and innovation and technological capability that we have within this within this broader debate, which is becoming quite polarized. You know, and I think there are still a large number of voices out there saying that this crisis is once again evidence of a national decline. And I think this crisis could give us a very different narrative about where the country is and where it’s going.

Dr Rakib Ehsan 52:37

Thank you, Matthew. I think we have time for one more question, Mr. Lucas.  His question was how far can the British population supposedly fearful attitude towards the outer edges? Mr. Bliss has asked us how far can the bridge populations supposedly fearful attitude towards the lifting of the lockdown measures be attributed to Britain’s reportedly high death rate from COVID-19? Madeline, would you like to maybe start us on that final question.

Madeline Grant 54:10

We’ve suffered badly. I think much of that has to do with the fact that we have a city like London, which is a massive global hub. I think people have often been drawing false comparisons between countries that have very different circumstances. And but on the whole no, I think we have been a bit more fearful even when you factor in national disparities. We do seem to be less more fearful than countries that have experienced similar levels of death per capita. And as other countries in Europe are relaxing their restrictions quite a lot earlier than us when it comes to things like schools. Italy’s opening their bars next week and we were promised that we were kind of two weeks behind Italy.  But in terms of the mindset, I can’t imagine us being ready to open ours in two weeks’ time. I think that we are a bit further behind the curve in terms about thinking. And actually, that’s a very important point because I think the government policies are heavily determined by what it thinks the public wants at a given time. So that level of fearfulness will have serious implications on when the lockdown is ultimately lifted.

Freddie Sayers 55:20

I think, you know, I mentioned the beginning, I think they need to find a new way of talking to get this process moving. And all of the emphasis has been on stressing the deadliness and the danger of the pandemic, which is understandable. They wanted people to obey the rules, you know, they get these terrifying social media adverts and television adverts of you know, “don’t go out because you’ll kill people” essentially, and they worked. And now you know, it doesn’t really work when it’s been telling people this is a deadly threat, do not cross the threshold (inaudible), wait, go back to school because people aren’t convinced by it. So I think the prime minister and senior people in the government need to start talking the language of risk. And about, you know, putting things in proportion. You know, David Spiegelhalter the statistician, was really good. I thought on a TV recently, when he was talking about some of the comparable risks of the different age groups and how actually, they are quite low. And as it happens, that will also give a government political cover, because, you know, as long as they’re saying it was this obviously lethal thing, and we need to kind of run from it forever. Their earlier missteps such as bringing in lockdowns later will always look stupid. Whereas if they have a more nuanced message, which is that, you know, we don’t know that much about the risks. Still, we’re learning a lot all the time, you know, and we, as a society, we need to come to a kind of grown up decision about how to manage that risk. Yes, it’s more complex message than stay home. But I think in time, it’s the only way for them to kind of bring back a bit of credibility as we go forward.

Dr Rakib Ehsan 57:01

Thank you for the and final thoughts from you, Matthew.

Matthew Goodwin 57:04

Yeah, I completely agree with Freddie, I would just add that one of the things that has driven me crackers over the last few weeks have been the very spurious correlations that people have tried to draw between types of government and types of parties and number of cases and number of deaths in different countries. And you see in the sort of tweets going around somehow sort of suggesting that what this crisis really reveals is a is a the broken nature of the Anglo Saxon model, or the problem that comes with, you know, right wing conservative governments. And, you know, one of the things that I did a couple of days ago is if you actually just adjust the figures, and instead of looking at absolute numbers, just look at them by population, then you then you find that you have a variety of different types of governments that have been coming up with very different experiences, you know, so the top end of the scale, we have countries like Belgium and liberal caretaker government in France with Macron. But we also have countries like Italy, left-wing and centre, the Netherlands liberal conservative, Spain, you know, firmly left-wing. And I have been slightly shocked by some of the some of the commentators and some of the very intelligent political campaigners, who have held very senior positions in very major governments who have been sort of disseminating this as if this is somehow proof that the populist era of the last sort of decade has somehow bred the mishandling of Coronavirus. I think, you know, we’re a long way, unfortunately, from having the informed and reasonable and moderate debate that I think Freddie rightly calls for.  Hopefully some of the experts that have been out there and have been willing to put their heads above the parapet on this will feel as though they can still carry on communicating in this national conversation and hopefully through, you know, interesting media platforms.

Dr Rakib Ehsan 59:14

Well, on that note, we’ll call a halt to tonight’s proceedings. Madeline, Freddie, and Matthew, I’d really like to thank you for participating and speaking at this Henry Jackson Society event. And thank you to everyone in the audience, our online audience, who joined us for tonight.


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