Has our trust in government been damaged or enhanced by the pandemic?

The Coronavirus crisis has the highest level of public awareness in recorded history with 98% of the British public reporting that they had noticed the story by the final two weeks of March (you do have to wonder who the 2% might be). No story has ever registered above 90% on this tracker before.

So, the public is watching like never before – locked down with precious little else to do.

But how do they think their Government is doing?

That depends on the metric. Research conducted by ORB International in the second half of March found an 18% increase in the number of people who thought the Government was handling the situation well. There was an equivalent percentage jump in the number that thought the threat posed by the virus had not been exaggerated by politicians, which is significant given of the prominent internet conspiracy theories which have emerged in response to the pandemic.

The increase in support reflects the anxiety which the crisis has generated in the population.

On the one hand, the proportion of Brits reporting their mood as ‘happy’ has plummeted from a long-standing average of 50% to just 26% at the end of March, according to YouGov. Yet trust in the Government has apparently jumped.

This seeming paradox can likely be explained by this heightened anxiety.

As a nation, we tend to be dismissive and distrustful of government and increasingly see politics as irrelevant to our daily lives. But, in the face of a sudden and material threat to our modern way of life, and with millions of households suddenly dependent on Government policy to ensure they can put food on the table, people are willing and want to trust the Government.

The authoritative Number 10 daily press briefings started on 16 March, a likely driver for the uptick in support around this period. Downing Street’s strategy of ensuring at least one impartial scientific or medical speaker is on the podium at each press conference has also helped to maintain credibility.

The Government has also been aided by an absence of opposition. This is in part due to a highly protracted Labour leadership contest, but there is also fear among the media and politicians that any criticism of Government policy could look like cynical point scoring during a national crisis.

There is though, some evidence that overall public trust still tracks along previous political fault-lines. Figures recently released by Opinium showed that 72% of ‘Leave’ voters trusted information provided to them by the Prime Minister on Coronavirus, but only 35% of ‘Remain’ voters said the same.

We might also have already seen the peak of positive public sentiment. On 2 April, YouGov’s Government approval tracker hit its highest level since it began in 2003.
Opinium’s research saw “confidence in the Government’s ability to handle the situation as it develops” drop from a high of 57% to 50% in the past week, and similar drop of eight points was seen in ORB’s tracker.

The most dangerous point for the Government is yet to come. Ministers will be hoping that the assurances they’ve given on availability of hospital capacity and medical equipment prove to be correct. It’s a difficult line to tread – assuring and calming the public, while managing expectations.

But if the Government can deliver for the NHS, while communicating honestly and transparently about what is going well and not so well, it might be able to restore faith in politics more generally for the long-term. That would be quite the achievement.