The Evolution of UK Public Opinion in the COVID-19 Pandemic

The original fieldwork for the annual BFPG Survey of Public Opinion on the UK’s Role in the World report was completed in January and February 2020 – in the early spectre of the Coronavirus crisis, but before it had been declared a pandemic and any restrictions on daily lift had come into force. There was no sense at this time that the disease would escalate as rapidly and dramatically as came to pass, and it therefore did not enter into our survey as an explicit nor implicit force. Some three months on, the national and global landscape has been utterly transformed.

One of the most challenging aspects of researching the social and political consequences of the crisis has been the volatile and nebulous nature of public opinion. The pandemic could provide the grist to the mill to accelerate existing trends; equally, it could diffuse the salience of certain issues. There is also every chance that much of the movement we see in public opinion during this time will re-stabilise in the aftermath of the pandemic and the age of our ‘new normal’.

At the end of April and the start of May, we re-ran a portion of the survey selected to identify areas of fluctuation in public opinion. These questions are on the ‘frontline’ of issues brought to focus in the pandemic, and address how the COVID-19 crisis is being assessed against other issues, citizens’ instinctive preferences for the UK’s role in the world, their trust in the government, and our relationships with other nations.

In this paper, we set out the evolving nature of UK public opinion on international affairs during the coronavirus pandemic, mapping the shifts taking place and emerging trends since we benchmarked citizens’ attitudes in January and February 2020. We conclude that it will be necessary to treat this data-set as a kind of time-series analysis, with future data points in the Summer and the Autumn of 2020, and beyond. Understanding the evolution of public opinion on these issues will continue to be critically important to formulating the strategies by which to engage the British population and build public consent around the Integrated Review and the Government’s vision for ‘a truly Global Britain’.

FIELDWORK: Conducted by Opinium Research, 29 April to 1 May 2020. Sample: 2,000 UK adults aged 18+. Survey results are weighted to nationally and politically representative criteria.

The full annual report is available for download from 23 June 2020 here.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.