Coronavirus and public trust

michael blastland
Mar 20, 2020 · 6 min read

The government has just published its evidence and reasoning about policy on Coronavirus and how it thinks the public will react, and it’s… amazing — according to Tom Whipple, science writer at The Times. He’s right. You can read his twitter summary here.

The document itself is here.

But there’s so much more to say than that…

The Winton Centre For Risk and Evidence Communication wanted to find out what it could about how the public is actually reacting, not how it might in theory, which is mostly what the government reasoning goes into.

What does the public think of the information we’re getting? Do people trust it? Do we trust the government? Do we think they’re getting the strategy right? How worried are we?

So, we ran a fast survey, collated overnight, to get a sample of opinion in both the UK and the US. The same survey is now running in Australia with Spain, Germany, Mexico and Italy planned over the weekend, and we’ll run it again soon in the UK to look for changes.

Our survey technique is not perfect (see below for the survey methods and some limitations*), but the results so far are striking all the same.

And we’re making the whole dataset public for anyone to explore. It’s here:

Here are a few hints from that data and our first reactions to it.

Would the public accept tougher controls against coronavirus? Yes, it looks like many of us might. We did not find evidence in this survey of a public bristling at what it considered panicked over-reaction. A few probably felt that way, of course, but on the whole we had the opposite reaction.

Image for post
Image for post

Do people think controls so far have been firm enough? No. Nothing like. Though they have the advantage of hindsight. But this evidence suggests they think governments in the UK and US could have gone further sooner. One of the starkest results…

Image for post
Image for post

Are they taking their advice from social media? Doesn’t look like it, not in our sample anyway (and the UK are more skeptical than the US). They think better of the WHO and scientific advisors. Some reassurance there? Journalists have a much more trusted role in the US than the UK

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

But there are some who definitely distrust government and officials in the US:

Image for post
Image for post

Are they worried? Very. Most of them anyway. No surprises there. But the strength of the worry ties in with other reactions.

Image for post
Image for post

But maybe their other worries have receded. Immigration, crime, terrorism, climate are all low concern compared with coronavirus. Immigration is very low and only climate change comes close (though bear in mind the survey limitations). Does a big worry put other worries in perspective? (Some trends would help tell us if other worries have actually receded or just been overtaken). Whether there is a ‘finite pool of worry’ is one of the things the Winton Centre will be hoping to discover from running the study in multiple countries and multiple time periods.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

Do they think they understand the strategy and do they have enough information? Could be better, but on the whole, mostly, yes.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

Do they think governments are up to the task? In the US, there is a stark problem with people not feeling the response has been effective and high distrust of the politicians’ ability to deal with the pandemic. In the UK, less so but still there are big concerns.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

Though US views on the need for tougher action both past and future does that suggest they are ok with government action per se, they just don’t like or trust what they’re getting at the moment?

And the US have slightly higher trust in their scientific advisors too…

Image for post
Image for post

And do they feel that they themselves can make a difference? Yes, and in the US there is an even stronger tendency to look to individuals rather than the government.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

There are lots more questions in the data set and we’ll be adding the other countries and pulling out more insights as we go.

We guess that how the public responds to the government strategy will be critical to the strategy’s success, but that there’s been little data so far on what people think and how they’re reacting.

Ideally, nothing in our survey will be news to those in charge. If that’s not the case, we hope this is informative if not conclusive, and a useful prompt.

  • The survey is of 700 people per country, representative by age, gender and ethnicity for each country, but of course respondents are all online so that means that generally they’re from more-educated, higher socioeconomic status groups (and that can bring a liberal bias, although we have the data on their politics so we’ll be checking that). It’s the best we can do for a long survey in a short time. But do handle the data with care. 700 participants means that any proportion has a margin of error of +/- 4%, assuming the sample is representative.

The Winton team working on the survey and results are: Sarah Dryhurst, Gabriel Recchia, Claudia Schneider, Anne Marthe van der Bles, Sander van der Linden, John Kerr, Alex Freeman.

Translation: Maria Climent Palmer and Giulia Luoni.

WintonCentre

michael blastland

Written by

Writer (most recently of The Hidden Half, How the World Conceals its Secrets), broadcaster (once of More or Less), board member of the Winton Centre.

WintonCentre

The Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication is hosted within the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics in the University of Cambridge. Transparent evidence designed to inform, not to persuade.

michael blastland

Written by

Writer (most recently of The Hidden Half, How the World Conceals its Secrets), broadcaster (once of More or Less), board member of the Winton Centre.

WintonCentre

The Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication is hosted within the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics in the University of Cambridge. Transparent evidence designed to inform, not to persuade.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store