Why aren’t we more relaxed?

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

At the time of writing, more than 30m people in the UK have received both doses of their Covid-19 vaccine. A further 12m have received at least one dose.

Since May, concern has been growing about the Delta variant, first identified in India. At a public health level, concern has grown to the point that the final stage of reopening was this week delayed until (probably) 19th July.

But even before the Delta variant, the public were not relaxing at the same rate that society was reopening. The proportion of people worried about returning to public spaces, like shops, restaurants or pubs has declined by only 10% since March and still accounts for over 40% of the population. The proportion of people who are more concerned by the health impacts of the pandemic than the economic ones has moved even less — declining from a peak of 73% in January to 66% in June.

Given that the vaccines have proven to effective, protective and safe, and that the UK is among the world leaders in vaccine rollout, why aren’t we more relaxed? Declines in the last couple of months suggest that the public are not unduly concerned by the Delta variant. Concern dropped at the same pace between May and June as it did between April and May. Instead, worry about resuming normal life is at such a high level that this rate of relaxation will continue to lag behind the unlocking.

To put it another away, consumers will remain reluctant to do things long after they are allowed to do them. This is a real concern, given that the government has bet the house on consumer demand stimulating the recovery.

In addition to the delay to Stage 4 of unlocking (postponed from 21st June to 19th July) leaked Whitehall documents also reveal the government’s plans on living with coronavirus even after Stage 4 does take place. This includes seasonal restrictions designed to limit contact when rates spike in the winter, a permanent shift to hybrid working or working from home (where it is an option) and new guidance on ventilation in buildings.

While the government has not confirmed that any of these will be part of the post July 19th guidance, they do underline a crucial reality: Covid is not eliminated by widespread vaccination, and will remain a public health threat even after it ceases to be a public health emergency. Currently, the public are relaxing from the 2020/2021 Winter peak and third lockdown at a slow rate. With these prospects on the horizon, they may never get to full confidence.

There are two milestones in next few months that are likely to move the dial here — although they may not move them in the same direction. The first is the now-delayed Stage 4 reopening on July 19th. Based on previous trends, this is likely to accelerate public confidence (even if some will be a little unnerved by maskless shoppers and commuters). The second comes in the Autumn, when the Job Retention (furlough) scheme closes and the temporary uplift to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits is removed. This will not affect health concerns, but may accentuate economic ones.

In our view, there are four possible scenarios for where consumer sentiment gets to by the end of the year.

We could stay where we are (top left) with recovery inhibited by lingering health concerns, or new variants could send us backwards (bottom left) to where we were at the start of the year.

We could stay where we are (top left) with recovery inhibited by lingering health concerns, or new variants could send us backwards (bottom left) to where we were at the start of the year.

Source: Trajectory

Alternatively, we could move past the acute phase of the pandemic with a public much more confident about participating freely in society (top right). This is the best case scenario.

But based on our current, slow, progress towards greater confidence in public places, another scenario (bottom right) remains a distinct possibility. In this scenario the economic dial moves before we have moved on from the pandemic’s acute health concerns.

The reasons why the public aren’t fully confident about reopening are understandable: we’re living through a deadline pandemic that has killed over 100,000 people, and even when fully vaccinated reacclimatising to normality will take time and be impeded by caution. But events are set to overtake this this slow attitudinal progress — and will necessitate a change of pace from government, and new expectations from business.

This piece first appeared on Trajectory Online, an insight and futures resource. For more information, visit https://trajectorypartnership.com/subscribe-to-trajectory/

Tom Johnson is managing director of Trajectory, a strategic foresight consultancy that specialises in monitoring and forecasting social and consumer trends