With the global death toll still rising, more than a fifth of the world’s population under lockdown, and much of Europe still quarantined in some form, and uncertainty about how and when this will end, the coronavirus outbreak has disrupted modern society on an unprecedented scale. It has pushing health care systems to their absolute limits, separated families, friends and communities and most cruelly of all, cut short tens of thousands of lives.

It is hard to think that in the UK we are only just looking to be coming out of the first phase of a crisis, that will have impacts for years to come.

Our past research has consistently shown us how shock events can work to tip the social balance between hope and hate, and so it was vital for us that we understood how people thought and felt about their lives and prospects, in the midst of this crisis. 

We polled* just over two thousand people in Britain twice over the course of three weeks to learn how the public were responding to the crisis, and how it could test our relationship with power, with politics and with one another over the coming months. Our first poll one just before lockdown was announced whilst the second poll was conducted two weeks into it. The findings discussed below are largely from the second poll unless otherwise mentioned.

The initial shock – understanding life in the ‘new normal’

Two weeks into lockdown, people had come around to the scale of the coronavirus outbreak, with the majority of people understanding the gravity of the crisis. Just 11% of our poll thought that the coronavirus is not as serious as the government and media make it out to be. However, although the majority anticipated there would be long term economic disruption, just under a third (31%) thought that although Coronavirus would cause huge short-term disruption it would pass with life quickly returning to normal.

However, the “new normal” is proving extremely difficult for huge numbers of Britons. As a consequence of the Coronavirus outbreak, 27% were working from home, while 13% had been furloughed. One in ten said their work hours had been reduced. Almost a fifth (17%) of people had dipped into their savings as a consequence of the outbreak, whilst 6% had gotten into debt and 6% struggled to pay their rent.

Millennials are struggling most with the economic impacts of coronavirus. 23% of people aged 25-34 have had to dip into their savings, 11% have struggled to pay rent, 10% have gotten into debt, 8% have lost their jobs, 18% have been furloughed and 13% have had their hours reduced as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Beyond financial concerns, a staggering 42% of young people aged 16-24 said they’d felt a deep sense of loneliness in the last 4 weeks.

Hope in the darkness – optimism and social solidarity persists

In this context, it seems strange that the pandemic is making some more optimistic for the future. In the years following the EU referendum, our polling tracked dwindling levels of optimism for the future, as Britain became a country of pessimists. But our latest poll finds that 59% of people say they are optimistic about the future, up from 52% just two weeks earlier, and up from 46% in December 2019, with optimism spreading across demographic and political boundaries.

People are looking not just to national responses, but also towards international solidarity. Six out of ten (60%) say that Coronavirus is best dealt with at an international level. A huge 78% of people think that the international community should create a $8bn fund to support the necessary research for a Coronavirus vaccine that would be available to every country in the world.

Hope is a fundamentally human response to crises, and our poll shows how it is bringing people together, despite our physical separation. More than half (55%) of Britons have clapped in support of the NHS on either of the last two Thursdays, while over a third (37%) had bought shopping for family or neighbours, 22% had rung a relative they hadn’t contacted in the last three months and 5% of people have volunteered to help the NHS.

Faith in political leaders rekindled?

Moreover, increasing optimism has started to repair people’s relationship with those in power. Over recent years, our research has seen how people’s relationship with the political system has been put under strain by the Brexit process, with the proportion of people who feel represented by any political party falling month on month. This matters, because when people don’t feel listened to within a political system, they start to look outside of it, opening up space for extreme alternatives.

Nonetheless, it is understandable that in a time of crisis, people look for stability and put their trust in political leaders to get them through. Just as Chancellor Merkel’s approval ratings increased in Germany, and France’s President Macron got a popularity bump, trust in Prime Minister Johnson and the government’s ability to deal with the crisis had grown quite rapidly. Two weeks into the lockdown a large majority (64%) said they trusted Boris Johnson and the Government to deal with the coronavirus pandemic appropriately, up from 50% in the week before the lockdown.

Holding government to account

Our past research has also shown that political trust is fragile, and that the public mood can shift extremely quickly. It’s also important to note that opinion is multi-faceted, and doesn’t fit always into simple binaries. Although the public might feel positive overall towards our political leaders, that doesn’t mean they are uncritical about their actions.

We found that more than three quarters of people (76%) think that the lack of Coronavirus testing has severely limited the British government’s ability to deal properly with the pandemic, including 70% of Conservative voters. Around half of Britons (46%) think that the government has been too slow in dealing with Coronavirus, whilst 35% of people think that the British government is blaming China for coronavirus to deflect from justified criticism that it was too slow in dealing with the outbreak.

In recent times, people’s relationship with power has appeared terse, stirred by populist narratives about the liberal elite, we wait to see whether this crisis could mend that damage or see a further fracturing of people’s relationship with power. Moreover, as the economic impacts of the crisis begin to hit, resentments and frustrations will swell. Where optimism is not met with realities, there is the potential for growing discontent and anger – conditions ripe for populist exploitation.

What economy awaits us?

Whilst it is too early to accurately assess the economic impact of the pandemic it is clear it is going to be substantial. An assessment by the Financial Times suggests that the UK might experience its worst depression since 1900.

Despite the government’s efforts to invest in keeping Britain’s businesses running, our poll finds that 41% of people, including more than half (56%) of those aged 25-34, are worried that they or someone in their household could lose their job as a consequence of the economic fallout from Coronavirus.

Already people are seeing job losses; 4% said that they had already lost their job as a consequence of the Coronavirus outbreak. Worryingly, this was even higher for some groups: 8% of young people aged 25-34 and 7% of people with household incomes of £10,000 or lower had lost their jobs.

Almost a third (28%) of people in part time work have dipped into their savings while 24% have had their hours reduced. One in fifty (2%) overall, including 3% of people in full time work, say they’ve used a food bank in the last 4 weeks.

The economic impact of the lockdown is being mitigated by £300bn of Government subsidies, loans and emergency payments, but this support cannot last and in an attempt to reduce the national debt the Government will be faced with a choice of reintroducing austerity or raising taxes – or both.

This will only deepen the economic hardship many face and as we have seen over ten years of austerity those already struggling will be hit hardest. Oxfam estimate that half a billion more people could be forced into poverty.

Our fight against the far right has shown us how economic instability is a driver of greater community friction. The economic impact of the coronavirus crisis will likely see high scale unemployment, a period of increased austerity and poverty. These conditions feed existing frustrations and resentment, and if twinned with a feeling of fallen trust in political leaders, lost power and externalised control, could create fertile conditions for hate.

Coronavirus will not only affect our economy, but also our communities, in a crisis which already exacerbated inequality, hitting those in insecure work and poor quality housing hardest, with BAME people disproportionately affected . The scale of this challenge shows how this is not only a medical crisis, but an economic and societal one too, with the potential for dangerous and divisive political outcomes. We must be prepared to respond now, and for the future.

* This survey was conducted using an online interview of adults aged 18+ who were sampled from across Great Britain, and weighted to be representative of the GB population.

It was administered by Focaldata.

Fieldwork for poll one was carried out between 20th-23rd March. Sample size: 2,022 

Fieldwork for poll two was carried out between 7th-9th April. Sample size: 2,032