James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
How much do the public care about Christmas? Will they be prepared to endure a minimal so-called “Digital Christmas” in the name of keeping the R-rate down?
Of course, everything depends about the perceived state of the country in mid-December. But let’s try to think about where we’re heading, where we might be at that point, and then about what the public might accept.
Let’s deal with the obvious first: those things that might make the public more willing to accept a Digital Christmas.
- Concerns for the NHS will rise during the winter. Just as people know the NHS always struggles in the winter, so they’ll also know significant numbers of Coronavirus cases would be a terrible additional burden. While there appears to have been a large increase in hospital admissions during these early days of a second spike, it isn’t clear that hospitals are much more burdened than they otherwise would be (I suspect for complex reasons). Nonetheless, people will be alert to any change; and, clearly, if there is a serious surge in admissions and visible shortages of beds and care, with large numbers of deaths, people will think very differently about things, Christmas or not.
- Optimism about a 2021 vaccine will be visible. I’m unclear at this point what the prospects of an effective vaccine will do to public opinion in the Christmas period. At one level, it might encourage people to play it safe for one last time before better times in the new year. (“If we can all make one last sacrifice…”) But it could also make people think their behaviour doesn’t matter so much, because help is on the way. I think they’ll certainly take a devil may care attitude if it appears that, contrary to the hype, a vaccine looks like it’s still many, many months away and if coverage is likely to be minimal. Politicians have wisely played down the idea of a game-changing vaccine for this reason
- Public opinion is currently changing rapidly; people are becoming less willing to accept the rules as they are. At the moment, only a significant minority want looser rules and guidelines, the majority want things as they are; but the direction of travel is clear. A surge in serious cases and / or deaths would change things and make people more cautious, but a general uptick along the lines we’ve seen recently, or an uptick that mirrors seasonal admissions, would likely see demands for looser restrictions grow.
Let’s now look at those things that might make the public more hostile to a Digital Christmas.
- Exasperation with the rules/guidelines will likely be much higher. We’ve known for some time people are struggling to understand the various rules and guidelines which are complex and change regularly. (Unforgivably, Government Ministers themselves have struggled to remember what they are). But exasperation will turn to anger as we approach Christmas if the prospect of a Digital Christmas looks real. At this point, people won’t be irritated because the rules are complex; rather, they’ll be angry the rules seem inconsistent, bordering on stupid, as we’ve seen in Wales. They’ll ask, why, for example, people can still visit pubs, but can’t enjoy a single day with their closest relatives – some of whom might be on their own. There will be endless comparisons: why can we do this but not this?
- Minor rule-breaking will increase. There are signs that this is on the rise, and that more people are becoming comfortable with risk. Forget the illegal raves and other illicit gatherings: I’m referring to regular minor rule-breaking – people not isolating for 14 days when they’ve come into contact with those that have tested positive; more people foregoing masks in supermarkets; people visiting others’ houses when they shouldn’t; and so on. This is surely likely to increase significantly in the coming weeks; more people seem to be thinking they’ll probably be OK if they break the rules in a minimal way (a massive change from the spring). The Government is alive to this; it’s been suggested the 14-day quarantine figure might be reduced. But the seal has been broken; rule breaking, however minor, is going to become common and by Christmas will likely be the norm.
- Fears for the economy – and the high street in particular – will rise. Concerns for the economy is going to keep going up as Government support slowly tapers off and unemployment and business bankruptcies tick up. Because it’s so visible, the high street plays a disproportionately important role in the public mind; it’s a signifier for the health of the economy more generally. Given the health of the high street will be on people’s minds into Christmas – as it always is – public concern for the economy will be heightened.
- Knowledge about the cause of infections will be higher. Partly because we simply know more about the Coronavirus and its effects – which the media is now passing on in more detail and more regularly – the public are going to increasingly question Government and scientific advice. They’re going to become more discerning judges of public policy. In the face-off between Greater Manchester and the Government, and in the criticisms of Government policy levelled by the hospitality industry, we are seeing more people ask questions about the causes of infections and the nature of their rise. In such a climate, people are more likely to question the basis for Government decisions on Christmas.
What does all this mean?
It’s hard to say at this point. As I’ve written a few times recently on this site, my strong sense at this point is that public opinion is moving against harsh measures because of a perception that –
(a) we always go back to square one whenever we loosen measures, so what’s the point?
(b) because concerns about the economy are finally starting to catch up with the reality of the grave economic situation.
My sense is that, for the reasons stated above, unless there’s a really very serious surge in deaths, and unless hospitals are demonstrably seriously more burdened than they would otherwise be (and not simply under the usual seasonal strain), then people will be extremely angry about the prospect of a Digital Christmas.
In turn, I would expect people to prepare for widespread minor civil disobedience; by that I don’t mean people having 20 people around for Christmas, but that many, many people will plan to invite guests from outside their bubble, and prepare to breach the rule of six for a few hours.
I’ve seen it said that people would accept a minimal Christmas if it appeared to be part of a consistent, national policy of restrictions.
I disagree with this view one hundred per cent; the point is, outside of a total national lockdown of the sort we saw in the Spring, it will never look like rules are being applied consistently and with good judgement. If people are already claiming that it’s ridiculous you can, say, go on a political demonstration but you can’t visit your elderly relatives, think how angry they’ll be around Christmas. (Incidentally, if any politicians did appear to breach their own rules in this period, it really would hit the fan).
You occasionally see people sneering about the public obsession with Christmas: it’s only one day; we’re not really a religious country; it’s not relevant to other faiths and those with none; and so on.
Of course Christmas isn’t primarily a religious festival for most; but it’s a day when people take time out to meet family members they might not otherwise see; and when many people try to include those that otherwise live lonely lives in something joyful.
The English aren’t naturally “big family” people: we have tight nuclear families, not the extended families you see in parts of Europe and Asia. Christmas is the exception. The Government should do everything possible to make sure people can enjoy something that feels vaguely festive. Or, yes, they’ll pay a price. Just watch Labour do everything they can to have their Christmas Cake and eat it on this issue.