March 5, 2020

Keep calm, carry on… or panic: A snapshot of the nation’s response to the Covid-19 crisis

Donald Rumsfeld famously said that there are ‘known knowns, known unknows, and unknown unknows’ and as things stand, we sit somewhere along that spectrum when it comes to the Covid-19 crisis.  There are precious few known knowns (at least as far as the general public is concerned) and we are all, including the medical / scientific community, seemingly negotiating the changing landscape of the known unknowns and unknown unknowns most of the time.

As I write this, I over-hear the lunchtime news anchor cautioning against ‘unnecessary panic buying’ – the rational voice of reason trying to temper our natural and implicit urges to protect ourselves and our loved ones at all costs.  And faced with the uncertainty of the unknown, our natural (and in itself, quite rational) instinct to protect against harm kicks in even more, fuelled by various other environmental cues that drive us to irrational calculations regarding, for example,  how much loo roll we might need… ever (if we happen to be Australian, that is!):

  • We hear about new cases constantly on the news… so availability bias kicks in and we’re pretty damned certain that we, or our loved ones will be bound to catch the virus tomorrow (though we are seemingly none of us in danger of catching seasonal flu… go figure!)
  • We hear of, or see others stockpiling everything from pasta to paracetamol and witness empty shelves where hand gels used to be… so herd behaviour kicks in and we find ourselves with enough pasta to last a lifetime in the garage (not hand sanitizer, sadly – someone else’s garage is already full of that!).

The base instincts are of course rational and useful from the point of view of survival, but the behaviours that accompanies those instincts can often be, and is in this case, disproportionate (according to the lunchtime news anchor, at least!).    

But what is the mood of the nation when it comes to C-19?  What stories are we telling ourselves and others to rationalise and resist these urges to run to the hills with a truck load of supplies?

Well, in partnership with Panelbase,  we conducted a very short & simple survey amongst a nationally representative sample of 1,000 UK adults earlier this week to find a few things out - and here are some of the results:

Most of us are worried (unsurprisingly) – but the most at risk seem calmest
  • 70 per cent  gave a score of 6 or above out of 10 to reflect how concerned they are about the current situation in the UK (I would wager that this would be higher by today if we refreshed the data)
    -   22 per cent (1 in 5) gave a score of 9 or 10
  • Some are, of course, more worried than others e.g. there are more worried women than there are worried men, more worried people in urbanized areas than in less populated parts of the country
  • Surprisingly,  levels of worry were just below average amongst the 65+ years olds at 21 per cent, compared to 27 per cent amongst 25 – 34 year olds (who are perhaps more likely to be bombared with unclassified / uncensored social media content)

People’s response is naturally contextualized by their circumstances

In order to avoid the scourge of panic (which Philip Johnston rightly pointed out in his Telegraph article on Tuesday, 3rd March, is potentially a worse scourge than the virus itself), there is clearly a need for national and local governments and other public bodies to be tailoring communication and public support initiatives across different segments of the population.  Two case study examples paint a clear picture of how people are responding differently based on their own contexts:

  1. Those in more urbanized areas are most likely to show high levels of worry, as are those where most cases have so far been confirmed (with a high correlation between the two).  Take Londoners for example…
    •  27 per cent gave a ‘worried score’ of 9 – 10 (vs. 22 per cent average)
    •  They are also amongst the most likely to be taking action (beyond the increased hand-washing, which anecdotally, pretty much everyone is at least claiming to be doing… unless they’re too busy selling hand sanitizer from their garage stock on e-bay!)
    •  46 per cent are trying to reduce the amount of time they spend in public spaces (vs. 38 per cent average)
    •  37 per cent have already, or are seriously considering cancelling social appointments (vs. 25 per cent average)
    •  47 per cent believe that large public gatherings should be stopped immediately (despite the medical / scientific community’s reassurances… gut feel is a powerful force!)
  2. Those who have important life-events on the horizon are expressing heightened concerns;  disruption, however small, could have more significant consequences for these people… or at least so they think until they’re told otherwise.  With all the talk of potential school closures, we took a close look at parents of kids who are about to take public exams (GCSE’s, A-Levels etc.)
    •  30 per cent of such parents are very worried (giving a score of 9 or 10) vs. 27 per cent on average
    •  They too are more likely to be taking conscious action to minimize the risk of infecting their children:
    •  46 per cent are trying to reduce the amount of time they spend in public spaces (vs. 38 per cent on average)
    •  31 per cent have already, or are seriously considering cancelling social appointments (vs. 25 per cent on average)
    •  49 per cent believe that large public gatherings should be stopped immediately (their gut isn’t listening to Matt Hancock either!)
    •  And we can surmise that the kids themselves are amongst the most likely to be concerned about catching the virus off their cohort, with 26 per cent of 16 – 24 year olds saying they have already been worried about a friend or family members who has shown symptoms… yes, 26 per cent!!!!!
Shopping habits are changing – very quickly

Yes - I know we all know that.  To be perfectly honest, the behavioural evidence of how quickly things are changing has become more evident even in the last couple of days since our survey was designed on 2nd March!

But it’s interesting that based on how people are currently feeling, we are likely to see continued stock-piling for some time to come, unless more behavioural interventions are deployed at point of purchase (cf. e.g. Boots restricting the purchase of (non-existent) hand sanitizers to 2 per person).

  • 20 per cent say they have already stocked up more than usual on personal hygiene products… another 21 per cent are considering doing so in the next few weeks (and this was before case numbers almost doubled mid-week)
  • 14 per cent have stocked up more than usual on food and drink… another 16 per cent are considering doing so in the next few weeks
  • 14 per cent have stocked up more than usual on everyday toiletries… another 17 per cent are considering doing so in the coming days and weeks
  • … the list goes on.

Deserving of its own lime-light is the fact that 1 in 10 (9 per cent) have started to move more of their shopping on-line, and a further 12 per cent are considering doing so in the coming weeks.  Highest behavioural intent was registered amongst those communities showing greatest concerns, and for those who are perhaps already more familiar with the channel e.g.:

  • 28 per cent of Londoners
  • 32 per cent of those who’s kids are coming up to public examinations
  • 28 per cent of family lifestage (25 – 54 years)

And, finally… so much for environmental concerns when it comes to shopping at times of public health crises!  Or at least, that’s the case for 1 in 4 (24 per cent) of the population who are becoming worried about buying loose fruit and veg that might have been infected by other unsuspecting shoppers.  We have a tendency as humans to discount the future in favour of the present (which is a major issue for climate change action in general), and it appears to be the case that plastic now vs. cleaner environment later is at least temporarily falling in favour of plastic now for some… unless of course, retailers supply picking gloves or be-gloved picking staff, even, to alleviate concerns.

NB.  A powerpoint of key stats is available upon request if you’d like a more visualised report of the survey findings.  Ping me a comment, an IM or an e-mail if you’d like to see that (available Monday, 9th March).

This very simple survey was designed by Tracer Ltd., hosted by Panelbase who also sourced the nationally representative sample of 1,000 respondents.

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