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

The Government has left the public hanging on a decision about Covid restrictions over the Christmas holidays as it wrestles with emerging data. Part of ministers’ internal deliberations must include judgements on what the public can and will take.

Politicians always worry about their own popularity but reading public opinion here is more fundamental: if harsh new rules are imposed but then ignored, they’ll be disastrously counterproductive. As they consider opinion, what should the Government be asking? 

Are people worried about getting it?

It would seem not. While polls suggest more people are “worried” about Omicron than not (by 54 to 39 per cent), this isn’t translating into major behaviour change. According to a YouGov poll on December 14/15, clear majorities had made no radical changes to their lifestyles – suggesting their “worry” over Omicron is more about being locked down and inconvenienced than actually getting it.

In a separate poll, more people opposed than supported the following: restricting reasonably large-scale outdoor mixing; restricting indoor mixing; only allowing people out for exercise and shopping; closing pubs and restaurants; and stopping large-scale sports and entertainment events.

The upshot is this: if there’s relatively little fear, it’ll be impossible to lock them down. Of course, opinion and behaviour might shift; significant numbers of hospitalisations and deaths will unquestionably change minds extremely rapidly. At this point, however, the harsh measures floated by Sage aren’t viable.

What does adherence to existing rules look like?

Get on a bus or tube in London and likely somewhere between 20 and 50 per cent won’t be wearing masks. This is despite massive media coverage; Government warnings that non-compliance will see us locked down; and an explosion of actual cases.

Anecdotal evidence is reflected by a YouGov poll from December 9/10, which showed 17 per cent opposed mandatory face masks in shops and 20 per cent had personally not worn a mask in a shop at least once in the last week. If people won’t even put a mask on for a 10-minute journey, or in a shop, what chance that everyone will adhere to more serious rules? 

How many people are actually getting tested?

Everyone with symptoms should get tested, as should those who have had direct contact with confirmed cases. But I would be astonished if anything approaching a majority of these people are actually getting tested. YouGov’s poll from December 14/15 suggested 38 per cent were not currently testing at all in any circumstances, but this probably understates the figure (given the structure of the question).

Either way, this is still a large number and probably exists for several reasons: (a) people are judging that symptoms are light in the infected; (b) people are hearing pretty much everyone over 40 has had the opportunity for a vaccination so continued mixing doesn’t feel selfish or reckless as it once did; (c) no one wants to lock down over Christmas; and (d) many people’s experience with track and trace was so appalling that they won’t want to get back on to “the system”. 

What are parents saying?

Last year’s long winter lockdown was a nightmare for parents: not only having to juggle work with home schooling but (far worse) seeing previously happy children struggle with isolation, away from family and friends.

Earlier this year, my agency did a long piece of research on mental health during the lockdown; a third of parents with children under 18 said they worried about children’s mental health. It seems certain that most parents will just ignore similarly harsh rules and allow their children to meet family and friends on the quiet. (I wrote about the political impact of school closures in more detail for The Telegraph last week).

What does trust in Government look like?

The Government’s slide in the polls is primarily down to perceived failure on important issues like small boats and the cost of living, rather than hypocrisy on parties etc. That said, this stuff will matter on the specific issue of lockdowns. Very obviously, people are going to ask why they have to lockdown – for example putting their kids through terrible hardship – when there are pictures of Government officials apparently on the sauce when they shouldn’t have been.

An Ipsos-Mori poll from 8/9 December showed most people thought politicians and their advisers would not adhere to new restrictions, while a YouGov snap poll on December 8 showed most people think parties happened, which probably broke the rules. On lockdown restrictions, there’s no question the Government’s moral authority has diminished.

What else is on people’s minds?

While the polls revealed deep public concern about the economy from mid to late 2020, people were primarily worried about job losses – which mostly didn’t come to pass. Now, they’re much more worried about the cost of living and rising taxes and bills. These are concerns which are much more real and tangible. Juggling work, childcare and home schooling in the context of a harsh lockdown is going to be much, much more problematic. People will ask how they’re supposed to keep going.

Many politicians and commentators talk as if the Government was completely in control of public behaviour – as if the Government just needs to announce new rules and everyone will follow, even if reluctantly or grudgingly. This judgement is based on the apparent responsiveness of the public across most of 2020. But the public wasn’t as responsive as they appeared; rather, they themselves wanted a brutal lockdown – more brutal even than the one designed by politicians. They didn’t meekly follow; rightly or wrongly, lockdown was exactly what they wanted.

But now they don’t. The success of the vaccination programme, following on from that appalling winter, has radically changed opinion. Again, hospitalisations and deaths will change people’s minds. But without that tragic evidence, it seems unlikely the Government will carry opinion for a harsh lockdown. What would “resistance” look like? Riots and protests? No. More just large numbers of people quietly choosing what they accept and don’t; in a sense, large-scale, low-level civil disobedience. The problem for the Government is that this means no lockdown.