Public concern about Covid-19 falls sharply despite rise in hospitalisations - survey

People less concerned about impact of the virus in current wave, latest ESRI social activity survey finds

Public concern about the impact of Covid-19 on the healthcare system fell significantly last month, despite a rise in the number of people in hospital with the virus, a new survey shows.

The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) found that, unlike the last two waves of infections in the first half of this year, there was a significant drop in worry about the impact of the virus on the hospital system and on family and friends, and about the global Covid-19 situation.

The survey of 1,000 people was conducted in the third week in June as part of the latest snapshot in a long-running behavioural study on social activity conducted for the Government to assess the public response to the risk of infection and public health guidelines.

The general level of worry about Covid-19 remained stable, despite the increase in infections and the number of people in hospital with the virus almost quadrupling in less than a month.

Dr Shane Timmons, a research officer with the ESRI, said this might down to the fact that people had not found the new Omicron subvariants in circulation to be as risky or as bad as expected.

He said public concern initially tracked case numbers and later hospitalisations but the recent experience of new variants being less severe than expected might be behind this latest change.

“Normally, as hospitalisations go up, people’s sense of worry goes up but we haven’t seen that in the latest survey. Worries have actually remained stable and worry about the healthcare system has actually fallen. This is not what we expected from growing hospitalisations,” he said.

Public behaviour recorded in the survey suggested that people have been returning to pre-pandemic behaviour gradually since January, despite the two Covid-19 waves since then.

The June survey found social activity reached its highest recorded level of the pandemic with mitigation measures such as mask wearing and social distancing reaching their lowest level.

The average number of locations visited by people was at their highest levels across most locations, driven by increases in visits to shops, hospitality venues and the homes of other people.

Inter-county travel and international travel were at their highest levels of the pandemic.

A majority of people said they believed the Government’s policy response and public health measures introduced during the pandemic saved thousands of lives and protected the economy.

About half of the people surveyed said they thought the economy would be in a worse place now if the public health measures had not been introduced, while a minority (34 per cent) said the economy would be in a better place now without the measures.

The survey also found that people underestimated the efficacy of vaccines against preventing death but also failed to consider the waning effects of the vaccine over time.

A majority of people said they would follow public health measures this winter, if needed, driven by the experience of restrictions being lifted in December 2020 and the subsequent wave, and because they saw how public health measures in December 2021 limited the Omicron wave.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent