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  • Writer's pictureDr Andrew Judge

Public health and the UK economy.

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

For the most part, British people believe that the measures to address health concerns during the coronavirus pandemic should take precedence over addressing economic concerns.

First published in May 2020.

According to media reports, the UK government is preparing to loosen some of the current ‘lockdown’ measures. This follows weeks of discussion about short- and long-term damage that a prolonged lockdown could have on the British economy. Often, harms to public health and the economy are presented as a trade-off in which action to reduce the number of deaths from COVID-19 can result in economic problems and vice-versa.

In a survey we conducted between the 10th and 15th of April of 2,100 UK citizens, we examine public perceptions of this perceived trade-off. When asked about an explicit trade-off between minimising the number of deaths from coronavirus and protecting the economy, people prioritise the former over the latter. On a scale between these two positions, 59% of our respondents lean towards minimising the number of deaths, whereas only 22% believe the economy should take priority. It therefore appears that for a clear majority of people, public health concerns outweigh economic concerns.

However, the devil is in the detail. In the same scale, 18% placed themselves in the middle of these two extremes. This may suggest that many respondents are uncertain where the balance should lie, or simply recognise that there is a trade-off between these two values.

To understand this more, we need to examine the concerns that people have about the current situation.

On a societal level, people expressed concern about various possible consequences of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK. We found that there is more widespread concern about the potential for mass economic hardship than the collapse of the National Health Service. Among our respondents, 71% stated they were concerned or very concerned about the former, compared to 56% about the latter. Both of these concerns were more prevalent than other possible concerns, such as the potential for social unrest or the UK becoming a ‘police state’.

By contrast, on a personal level people are more concerned about the health impacts of the pandemic over economic and other concerns. These health concerns include respondents or a member of their household catching the virus, or not being able to obtain medicine or medical treatment. Economic concerns include respondents not being able to pay their bills, rent or mortgage, or running out of food. While 57% of respondents are concerned or very concerned about personal health, only 29% are concerned about their personal economic situation.

This points to a crucial difference in how concerns about health and economics are expressed. While levels of concern for personal health and the NHS are very similar, there is much greater concern about widespread rather than individual economic hardship.

Interestingly, there is a high level of support for measures to help address the economic hardships experienced by individuals and others. For instance, 77% of respondent support both the suspension of mortgage and debt payments for the duration of the crisis, and the provision of more financial support to the self-employed and small businesses. Yet there is even higher support at 85% for restricting people to only leaving their home for essential work, shopping or medical reasons.

Indeed, despite economic concerns, there is clear support for maintaining the lockdown and very little support for relaxing the measures to prevent mass economic harm. A massive 83% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that these measures are necessary to prevent a major national catastrophe. By contrast, 52% of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that these need to be relaxed in order to avoid a major economic catastrophe.

The evidence from our survey seems to suggest that both health and economic concerns are prevalent, however for the most part people believe that the measures to address health concerns should take precedence over addressing economic concerns. This perhaps reflects the strong ‘stay at home’ message that the UK and Devolved Governments have issued throughout the lockdown.

It remains to be seen whether a change in messaging will shift public attitudes on this issue.🔷  

[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 11 May 2020. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Nugent. - NHS Coronavirus notice at Euston railway station. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

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THE AUTHOR Dr Andrew Judge

Deputy Head of Politics and International Relations, School of Social and Political Sciences,

University of Glasgow.

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