19 July heralded ‘Freedom Day’ for many Britons as most domestic coronavirus restrictions were lifted in England. Amidst a dramatic increase and subsequent fall in case numbers and the ongoing ‘pingdemic’ causing food and staff shortages, Britain is learning to live with coronavirus without mandated restrictions. At Redfield & Wilton Strategies, we surveyed the British public to understand their views on the Government’s approach to lifting restrictions and the decision to open up on 19 July. Our findings show a fierce split in public opinion, driven by generational disagreement.
A marginal plurality (41%) of Britons say they support the lifting of domestic coronavirus restrictions on 19 July, whereas 39% oppose it. A further 18% neither support nor oppose the lifting of all restrictions, and 2% say they don’t know. These results represent a return to findings from a Redfield & Wilton Strategies poll from 7 July when 41% of Britons supported the lifting of restrictions and 37% opposed it, and are in stark contrast to the plurality (49%) who opposed the lifting of restrictions, against 31% who then supported it, just last week, suggesting that the latest decrease in cases has shifted opinion.
We observe a generational divide in responses to this question: a plurality of 47% of 18-to-24-year-olds support the lifting, with almost a quarter (23%) who strongly support it. This support decreases with age, with 35% of those aged 65 and older in support. By comparison, 48% of those 65 and older oppose the lifting of restrictions on 19 July, while just 31% of 18-to-24-year-olds share this opinion.
The British public appear similarly divided regarding the UK Government’s approach to lifting coronavirus restrictions. One-third (33%) says that the Government has struck the right balance, while another third (32%) says that the Government has been too impatient in its approach. Conversely, a fifth of Britons (21%) think that the Government has been too cautious.
In comparison to 7 July, a consistent third has responded that the Government has struck the right balance in its approach to lifting coronavirus restrictions. However, the proportion of Britons who think the Government has been too impatient has risen by seven points, from 39% before ‘Freedom Day’ to 46% in the weeks following the lifting of restrictions. Correspondingly, the proportion who think the Government has been too cautious has decreased from 29% to 21%, down eight points. These changes suggest that public opinion is certainly not fixed following ‘Freedom Day,’ potentially due to the recent surge in case numbers.
Again, age emerges as an indicator of opinion. Of those aged 18 to 24, a third (31%) thinks that the Government has been too cautious, compared to just 10% of 55-to-64-year-olds who share this view. Indeed, 55-to-64-year-olds are the most likely to think that the Government has been too impatient, with a majority of 54% expressing this opinion. Despite certain generational differences, however, pluralities across all age groups see the Government’s approach to lifting coronavirus restrictions as too impatient—including 38% of 25-to-34-year-olds, the age group among which the lowest proportion of respondents express this view.
We encountered a third divide in opinion when we asked respondents if 19 July was too late, the right time, or too soon to remove all coronavirus restrictions. 46% think that 19 July was too soon, yet 45% of respondents think that 19 July was either the right time (33%) or too late (12%).
Younger respondents appear most divided: of those aged 18 to 24, one-third (33%) thinks 19 July was too soon, yet similar proportions alternatively think it was the right time (31%) or too late (28%). There is less division among older age groups: Clear majorities of those aged 55 to 64 (57%) and 65 and above (55%) think it was too soon, while only 4% and 8%, respectively, think it was too late. The consistent split in younger respondents’ opinion, compared to the relative consensus among older respondents, suggests that the overall divide in British public opinion is driven by generational disagreement.
Finally, we asked the British public if the Government’s decision to open up on 19 July will have been justified if only a very small number of those infected with coronavirus end up seriously ill and dying due to the success of the vaccination programme in the UK. Again, we see a significant split in opinion. A plurality of 42% says yes, the decision to open up on 19 July will have been justified, but an only slightly lower proportion of 35% says no, the decision will not have beenjustified. Significantly, almost a quarter (23%) don’t know. Amidst news that coronavirus vaccines in the UK have prevented 60,000 deaths and weakened the link between infection and serious illness, it nevertheless appears that such statistics are, for the moment, not sufficient for the public to reach a consensus on the acceptability of high case numbers.
Considerable division remains amongst the British public where the Government’s decision to lift domestic coronavirus restrictions on 19 July is concerned. This split in opinion appears to be driven by generational differences, with younger respondents consistently those most likely to support lifting measures, whilst older respondents are more likely to think that restrictions were lifted too soon. However, interestingly, a plurality of the public agrees that if very few people become serious ill and die from coronavirus, the Government decision to lift all domestic restrictions will have been justified. Yet this view is far from being consensual, and it remains to be seen how this opinion will change as case numbers in the UK continue to fluctuate.