Policing the COVID lockdown - what the public thinks nine months on

Danny Shaw, Head of Strategy and Insight

Friday 22 January 2021

Boris Johnson riding his bike in London in 2013
Boris Johnson riding his bike in London in 2013
The sky is grey; the outlook is uncertain; we are in lockdown again. These are the grimmest weeks of the pandemic and arguably the most critical. Will the unprecedented restrictions on our freedoms manage to bring down coronavirus infection rates and relieve the pressure on hospitals before vaccines are rolled out?

Much depends on us, of course. A lot also hinges on the police who have to enforce the constantly changing rules - the Statutory Instruments containing the regulations are now said to run to 148 pages. At Crest we’ve been monitoring the public’s attitude towards the way the health emergency has been policed, through polling conducted by YouGov.


We commissioned two surveys in April last year, near the start of the first lockdown, and a third, which was carried out among 1,566 adults on 13 and 14 January. The findings suggest that although support for the police’s approach remains strong, with 60 per cent of people currently giving their backing, it has eroded over the past nine months. A growing proportion, more than one in five, believe tougher action is needed, but there remains a significant minority who would rather see police adopt a lighter touch.


Q: Which of the following statements comes closest to your view of how the police are handling the COVID-19 lockdown?


Unequivocal backing for the police has dropped most sharply among young adults, with one in eight giving their support this month, compared with about one in three, at the beginning of April 2020. This may well reflect frustration at the enforcement of measures preventing group gatherings, which is likely to affect younger people more than others.


There are clear regional variations, too, with overall approval ratings for the police lowest in London, where it has dipped to under 50 per cent. That could be down to demographic reasons rather than a notably different policing approach in the capital to other areas across England and Wales, where support is in the 60-64 per cent range. It’s interesting to note that a rising and significant number of young people and Londoners want tougher measures - support for that option has almost doubled since the survey was first conducted to just under 30 per cent in both categories.


We also surveyed people’s views on specific police measures - including curfews, which we hadn’t asked about before. The results suggest there’s strong support for the idea:


Q: To what extent are you comfortable or uncomfortable with each of the following police measures in response to COVID-19?


Analysis of the findings shows, unsurprisingly, that the older people are, the keener they are on curfews: 79 per cent of those aged 65 and over, compared with 61 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds; Londoners were slightly less in favour than those elsewhere. There’s also been steady backing over the past nine months for police arresting people who fail to comply with lockdown rules, but support for roadblocks has fallen.


One theme during the pandemic has been the extent to which people are influenced by the behaviour of those in public life. The controversial trip to County Durham and Barnard Castle by Dominic Cummings in March and April 2020 was widely thought to have affected compliance among the wider public, making it harder for police to enforce the rules. We wanted to test people’s response to the Prime Minister’s outing to the Olympic Park in east London, where he was spotted cycling - seven miles from his home in Downing Street. Overall, almost two-thirds of respondents - and nearly half of Conservative voters polled - thought it had undermined the police’s task:


Q: Boris Johnson travelled seven miles from Downing Street to go for a bike ride at the weekend. Regardless of whether you think this does or does not bend or break COVID-19 rules, do you think what Boris Johnson did makes it harder for police to enforce the rules, or doesn’t it really make any difference?


The police service has had a hugely challenging role during the pandemic. Our polling suggests public support for what they’ve done has held firm, which is quite an achievement. But there are signs that it is gradually on the decline, with views more polarised than before. At one end, there’s growing support for a tougher stance, and, at the other, for a relaxation of the rules. Getting the balance right presents the biggest test for chief constables and police and crime commissioners in the days and weeks ahead.

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