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Trust in government fell in second year of Covid – but public still receptive to obeying rules that restrict freedoms

Around one in 10 also said they’d potentially be prepared to support violent demonstrations linked to lockdowns

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Covid in the UK: trust and freedom in the second year of the pandemic

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Trust in the UK government to tell the truth and do the right thing fell during the second year of the Covid-19 crisis, particularly among Conservative voters and older people – but despite this growing distrust, half the public still said the pandemic had made them appreciate the need to obey government rules even when they restrict our freedoms, according to a new study.

Led by academics at King’s College London and the University of Sheffield, the research is based on an online survey of 4,872 UK adults (aged 18-75) carried out in November/December 2021, which followed up on a similar online survey from April 2021 among 4,896 UK adults.

The study also reveals that around one in 10 people said they’d be prepared to support violent demonstrations and protests linked to lockdowns in certain situations, with those who get a great deal or fair amount of their information about coronavirus from social media much more likely to say they could see themselves supporting such action.

However, potential support for violent demonstrations and protests in connection with specific lockdown situations was lower than that for violence in response to other issues, such as the UK government starting a war that people didn’t agree with or a tax increase that was seen as unfair.

Trust in government to tell the truth and do the right thing

In November/December 2021, 58% of the public disagreed that the UK government is honest and truthful – up from 47% in April 2021.

  • The proportion of 2019 Conservative voters who felt this way almost doubled, rising from 24% to 44% over this period, while it rose from 42% to 59% among 55-to-75-year-olds – the biggest increase among any age group surveyed.

There was a 10 percentage point decline in the belief that, in general, the UK government usually does the right thing, with 38% agreeing with this in April, falling to 28% in November/December.

  • Again, Conservative voters saw a big change in views during this time: 49% said the UK government generally does the right thing – down from 65% earlier in the year. And 44% of those aged 55 to 75 felt this way in April, but that had fallen to 30% by November/December.

In April, 53% said they were unsure whether to believe the UK government, which rose to 62% in November/December.

Trust and the pandemic

Towards the end of 2021, 45% of the UK public said that, looking back over the past couple of years, the overall experience of the Covid-19 pandemic had decreased their general level of trust in the UK government – up from 36% in April.

Distrust of the prime minister’s leadership on the crisis also grew:

  • In November/December, 62% of people said they didn’t trust Boris Johnson very much or not at all on issues related to coronavirus and the response to it, compared with 50% in April.
  • At the end of last year, the public were twice as likely to distrust as trust Johnson on issues related to the pandemic (62% vs 31%).
  • The proportion of Conservative voters who said they distrusted the prime minister on these issues more than doubled during the course of 2021, rising from 19% in April to 42% in November/December.
  • 44% of 55-to-75-year-olds said they distrusted Johnson on issues related to coronavirus in April, which rose to 60% in November/December.

Towards the end of 2021, people were more likely to distrust Boris Johnson (62%) than Keir Starmer (53%) on issues linked to Covid – although virtually the same proportion said they actively trusted each on such issues (31% for Johnson; 32% for Starmer).

Civil liberties during Covid

The Covid crisis appears to have made some appreciate the need to obey government rules even when they curtail civil liberties, while others said the UK government had used the crisis to undermine such liberties.

In November/December 2021:

  • Half the public (48%) agreed the experience of the coronavirus pandemic had made them realise it’s best to obey government rules, even when they restrict our freedoms – compared with 19% who disagreed and 29% who neither agreed nor disagreed.

    • Around six in 10 Conservative and four in 10 Labour voters agreed with this statement, while those who have been vaccinated against Covid (52%) were more than twice as likely to agree than those who hadn’t had any dose (21%).
  • Around a quarter (27%) of the public said the experience of the coronavirus pandemic has shown them that the UK government had used the pandemic to undermine civil liberties. 36% disagreed with this statement, and 30% said they neither agree nor disagree.

    • Those who said they get a great deal or fair amount of their information about Covid from some social media platforms were more likely to agree, with nearly four in 10 or more who use TikTok (45%), YouTube (42%), WhatsApp (40%), Instagram (40%), Twitter (39%) or Facebook (37%) as one of their main sources of information on the pandemic believing the government had undermined civil liberties in this way.

Political violence

In November/December 2021, around one in 10 people said they would potentially support violent demonstrations or protests linked to Covid lockdowns when presented with certain situations:

  • One in nine people (11%) said they would support violent demonstrations or protests if the UK government refused to impose a lockdown when doctors and scientists advised it was needed.
  • One in 11 (9%) said they’d support such violent action if the UK government imposed a lockdown they didn’t agree with.

In both scenarios, those who said they got a great deal or fair amount of their information about coronavirus from certain social media platforms were more likely to support violence.

For example, around a quarter of people who use TikTok or Instagram for this purpose said they would support violent demonstrations or protests in each context – much higher than the one in 10 among the population as a whole who said the same.

But overall, the UK public’s potential support for violence linked to these lockdown situations was lower than that linked to other scenarios, with 20% saying they’d support violent demonstrations or protests if the UK government was about to start a war that they didn’t agree with and 14% saying they’d be willing to do so if the UK government passed a tax increase that they thought was unfair.

Dr Daniel Allington, senior lecturer in social and cultural artificial intelligence at King’s College London, said:

“We’ve heard a lot in the media about how the government’s response to the pandemic may have been pushing some individuals towards extremism. But what our findings show is that, whatever their stance on lockdowns, vaccination, and the virus, people in the UK are for the most part very pragmatic, and definitely don’t see Covid-19 as something to start a civil war over. Trust in the current government may have fallen, but the glue that binds our society together remains strong – especially in this time of crisis.”

Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:

“The pandemic has shown how vital public trust is to navigating these sorts of crises, from following extraordinary restrictions on our lives to taking up a vaccine developed in record time. So it is a concern that trust in the government declined so significantly in the second half of 2021, particularly looking ahead to the possibility of more dangerous variants of Covid-19, and likely future pandemics.

“But it’s also the case that people are much more likely to say the lesson they’ve learned from Covid is that they should obey government rules, rather than see those as undermining civil liberties. Given the incredible measures we’ve lived through, combined with the decline in trust, we might have expected more questioning of government intervention.

“And it’s a similar, encouraging picture on violence: while it seems worrying that around one in 10 are willing to support violent demonstrations or protests around lockdowns, this is mostly in relatively passive ways, such as sharing material online – and is lower than the proportion who say they’d be willing to support such violence against wars or even tax rises. We may have an impression of extreme anger among the public, but that’s an unrepresentative view from small-scale demonstrations and polarised social media exchanges.”

Dr Siobhan McAndrew, senior lecturer in politics, philosophy and economics at the University of Sheffield, said:

“Trust is a resource for us all, as we go about our daily lives. One major element of trust is a fundamental belief that we should give people the benefit of the doubt as a day-to-day rule. Another important element depends on whether we see other individuals or organisations behaving as they should. Both aspects are evident in our data, and give us a story of contrasts.

“There is still a strong bedrock of basic trust: a concern to do the right thing as a matter of course. This ensured high public compliance with lockdown and social distancing rules, and high vaccination uptake. The story on evaluative trust is less positive.

“Active rejection of coronavirus restrictions and vaccinations is uncommon, and the number of those reporting willingness to protest is very small. A drift towards indifference and scepticism of authorities may be a bigger problem for public health going forward. The risk is that declining trust in the reasons given for policy choices may affect future compliance – both with regard to coronavirus as it further evolves, and public health measures more broadly”.

Technical details
On behalf of researchers at King’s College London and the University of Sheffield, Ipsos MORI carried out an online survey of 4,872 adults aged 16-75 in the United Kingdom between 19 November and 18 December 2021, and 4,896 adults between 1 and 16 April 2021. Data has been weighted to the known offline population proportions for age within gender, government office region, working status, social grade and education. All polls are subject to a wide range of potential sources of error.

The findings in this study are part of “Covid and after: trust and perceptions”, a project funded under the ESRC Covid-19 Rapid Response research call ES/V015494/1.