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James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

There are two main groups of critics of the Government’s strategy to contain the Coronavirus: those that say the Government is wrongly curtailing our civil liberties; and those that say the Government risks wrecking the economy with the lockdown. Both groups are currently politically weak; and only the second group has any realistic chance of changing Government policy.

As it stands, the Government is seen to be doing a very good job. It has overwhelming support for the lockdown – and clear majorities are in favour of a greater police presence, and even an army presence, on the streets to enforce it (although the police are doing their best to undermine this support with some extraordinary behaviour).

This seems to be for three main reasons: most importantly and obviously, because people are worried about their old and vulnerable family members getting it, as well as themselves; because, now we’ve gone down this route, we should at least do it properly, so we’re not stuck in a sort of semi-lockdown forever; and, in terms of tougher enforcement, because people can’t stand some people ignoring the rules that the rest of us are playing by.

People are aware that their civil liberties are being curtailed, but they’re currently content with this; only a very small minority believe their civil liberties are being wrongly infringed. For the most part, people are essentially volunteering to stay at home. The vast majority of people don’t want to go out and don’t want others to go out either.

To date, the conversation in politics and the media has been understandably primarily focused on the public health aspect of the virus, rather than the existing and potential economic impact. As such, while polls suggest the public expect a serious economic downturn, they also suggest that most people aren’t yet obsessing about the potential impact on their lives.

Of course, immediate fears are very audible from the self-employed above all, and from business owners, but they’re not audible from the public at large. Again, this mainly reflects the fact that people are overwhelmingly worried about public health at this point. But it likely also reflects the success the Government has had in communicating its worker support programme; people feel like they will be looked after. The Government rightly judged that people, perfectly reasonably, will think first of all, and overwhelmingly, about their own wages.

It seems impossible that this relative quiet about the economy will continue for long. For while the Government has reassured the mass of people in the private sector on PAYE about their salaries, many businesses will have to lay off staff regardless of the help the Government is offering if they have no money coming in; and the Government is offering support to keep staff on, they are obviously not banning firms from laying people off.

Even though the Government’s support for employees’ wages is welcome, plummeting revenue will wipe this benefit out and more. If businesses have no money – and yet still have to pay for everything from renting premises to accountancy support to daily expenses – then they just have no money.

Many will start laying people off, and many will go bust. Even the most prudent firms generally only keep three months operating costs in their bank account; a long lockdown eats into this very fast. In such a climate, a comprehensive lockdown of the scale we’re now seeing isn’t sustainable.

There is another issue, of course, that hasn’t yet been discussed. This is the extent to which social problems emerge because of people being kept in isolation. Again, the polling suggests that people don’t view this as a problem at this point and say they’re feeling positive about isolation, but the media are beginning to report some of the darker things that are going on behind all those closed doors. Related to this, we will likely start to see a rise in general health problems as the NHS focuses on the impact of the virus. This will also add to pressure for change.

Public opinion is solidly behind the Government and the strategy it has laid out but, in the environment of a lockdown, where days feel like weeks, and weeks feel like months, things could change quickly. People will always put health first, but they will start to call for serious mitigating action to protect the economy when the first signs of high-profile business closures are seen. There were suggestions this week that the lockdown could continue for six months. Very few businesses could survive a lockdown of the type we’re currently in for that period of time. A sustained lockdown will have to be more focused.

103 comments for: James Frayne: Public opinion is solidly behind the Government – for the time being, at least.

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