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How did trust in the UK government change through the Covid-19 pandemic?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 21 October 2022

Sam Parsons and Richard Wiggins.

Our research presented this weekend at the Society for Longitudinal and Lifecourse Studies (SLLS) International Annual conference in Cleveland, Ohio focuses on changes in self-reported trust in the UK government, trust in others and compliance with social distancing measures introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Results are based on the responses of 23,461 people living in the UK, who participated in at least one of three web surveys collected during the Covid-19 pandemic, specifically in May 2020, September 2020 and February 2021.

Respondents belong to four nationally representative longitudinal studies which follow people from ‘cradle to grave’, covering baby boomers (sixty-somethings, born 1958), generation X (fifty-somethings, born 1970), millennials (thirty-somethings, born 1989/90) and generation Z (twenty-somethings, born 2000/2). Further information about these cohort studies is available on the Centre for Longitudinal Studies website.

The initial wave of data collection began in May 2020, several weeks into the national lockdown. This first survey coincided with the UK Statistics Chief, Sir David Norgrove rebuking  Health Secretary Matt Hancock for inadequate data on tests, a change of governmental advice from ‘stay at home’ to ‘stay alert’ and the breaking news about a prominent government advisor’s (Dominic Cummings) trips to Durham during lockdown.

During the period May to September 2020,  the population was actively encouraged to ‘eat out to help out’ and ‘grab a drink, raise a glass, pubs are reopening their doors’ (a Treasury tweet in July later withdrawn). This was set against a background of rising Covid cases and stood in stark contrast to the experience of the frail old, as demonstrated by remarks such as ‘care homes being thrown to the wolves’ from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

In the build-up to the third wave of data collection, the UK had entered a second lockdown (5 November  to 2 December 2020) and experienced a relaxation in rules allowing households to meet up over five days at Christmas. Although the nation went into a third national lockdown in early March 2021, there were more positive developments on the horizon, with the announcement of a planned return to education for school children, and the promise of being the first country to offer a comprehensive national vaccine programme.

According to the Oxford dictionary, trust denotes a firm belief in the honesty, veracity, justice and strength of a person or thing. In the web surveys ‘trust’ was measured on an 11-point visual analogue scale where ‘0’ indicates no trust at all and ‘10’ represents complete trust. Trust in the UK government was less strong than trust in others (friends, neighbours, strangers) throughout the pandemic in all generations.

Typically, trust in others remained high throughout our observation period whereas trust in government declined as the pandemic progressed, although there was some evidence of an upturn in trust during the early part of 2021, which coincided with the promise of a national vaccine rollout and a planned return to face-to-face education for all children and students.

Unfortunately, there were no further waves of data collection to show how trust in the government among these respondents was affected by the revelations of ‘partygate’ in Downing Street and other examples of rule breaking  across government departments. Other research has found a close relationship between trust levels and the actions of political leaders in the UK (e.g. ‘The Cummings effect’).Reported levels of trust were higher among the older cohorts. Across all generations, women tended to be more trusting of both the government and others than were men, but when it came to an assessment of the government’s performance during the pandemic (February 2021) younger women were likely to be more critical than their older counterparts.

Compliance with social distancing remained high throughout, with a slight fanning out over time by age, showing that baby boomers and generation X were more likely to continue to adhere to social distancing measures than those in the younger generations. However, in all generations compliance with social distancing remained high irrespective of the presence of vaccine hesitancy.

In addition to sex, we also examined differences by social class, education level, employment/furlough status, reports of living alone, having low social contact and feelings of loneliness, vaccine intention, and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) status for the younger cohorts (millennials and generation Z).

Young BAME respondents were less trusting of government than their white counterparts, whereas having a degree was associated with scepticism when it came to trust in government. This was seen most sharply among the oldest and the youngest participants.

Being continually in employment or furloughed appeared to have little payback for raised assessments of trust in government. This may have had more to do with the necessity of having to work away from home or the uncertainties associated with being furloughed. Feelings of loneliness were negatively associated with trust in government especially for generation Z and the millennials. This, in line with other research, this clearly emphasises similar messages  for policy evaluation and intervention where the young may have felt lost and abandoned both in Europe and the UK.

These low levels of trust shown in the UK government could go on to have important consequences for those in power as previous research has found that trust in government is negatively associated with evaluations of political competence. Trust in others remained pretty high, and, is therefore important to individuals and quite unrelated to their assessments of trust in government. Compliance with social distancing remained high irrespective of vaccine status and suggests that the majority of individuals took responsibility for their own behaviour and complied with the need to protect themselves from the Covid virus, irrespective of their views of government and the vaccination roll-out.

Further information

The working paper, ‘Trust in government, trust in others and compliance with social distancing: findings from the CLS COVID-19 web survey across four National Longitudinal Studies during 2020-2021,’ is available to read on the CLS website.

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