There is a “clear disjunction” between public debate objections to more Covid-19 restrictions and a majority who want stronger measures to suppress the virus, a behavioural scientist has said.
Prof Pete Lunn, head of behavioural research at think tank ESRI, said that public polling over recent months suggested the public debate was "miles off" the opinion of the majority of the population who want the Government to be more cautious in fighting coronavirus.
Prof Lunn said the Government still needed to be “nuanced” in its message over a possible move to Level 5 – the most severe restrictions under the Covid-19 response plan as proposed by the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) – as it is unclear how people will react.
Surveys and evidence gathered on public attitudes towards restrictions are not showing fatigue with the restrictions but “a degree of resilience” and compliance has been “edging up” consistently over recent months, he said.
“That suggests that there is a majority appetite that says, ‘we can cope with this’ and in fact, on balance, the public wants more restriction rather than fewer,” said Prof Lunn, who is a member of a subgroup that has advised NPHET on the public response to the pandemic.
The most recent data from the tracking survey by Amárach for the Department of Health, published at the end of last month, shows 53 per cent of people polled believe that Government's response has been "appropriate" – down from a high of 83 per cent in April.
Some 40 per cent of people believe that the measures have been “insufficient” – up from a low of 12 per cent in May – while just 7 per cent of people say that the Government’s measures have been “too extreme”, down from a high of 12 per cent in the first week of September.
In response to whether the Government should go further, 54 per cent of people said last week that more restrictions should be introduced, compared with 27 per cent who said they should not.
“The major picture that comes through from the tracking surveys and other evidence is that consistently, since about June, the public has wanted the Government to be more cautious and put on more restrictions,” said Prof Lunn.
He said that public debate around restrictions has been led by lobby groups, journalists and “people who want to be more active” but there was a “quiet group of citizens who don’t because they are scared of this disease and they want the Government to be more cautious.”
“While I accept there is clearly a fatigue and a tiredness, it is not manifesting itself as of now in substantial numbers of people either saying that they are breaking the restrictions and they don’t accept them or suggesting that they shouldn’t be there,” he said.
Prof Lunn said that how public opinion responds to any argument for more restrictions will be important but that it was also important to understand that only a minority will react badly.
Ian Robertson, emeritus professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin, said there was no data available on how people might react to the "shock" of going back into lockdown again, from the Level 2 or 3 restrictions that are currently in place up to Level 5.
But the public might buy a “carefully crafted” message that this was an emergency measure for a limited period, four weeks, to give the virus “a severe beating to allow us to get back,” he said.
“People are actually quite frightened about the virus and they are very aware of the risks to them of a minority of people breaking the rules very flagrantly and publicly, and this makes them feel anxious and makes many people in favour of tighter restrictions,” he said.