June 30. We are living through a time of drama. Every week brings a new crisis, reported or anticipated.
History will record a belated response in the early days leading to thousands of avoidable fatalities, critical shortcomings in PPE, scandalous death-rates in care homes and amongst the BAME population, widespread failings in introducing test and trace procedures, the complete failure of the NHS testing app. Today we have the return of lockdown in Leicester and later this week there is the predicted disaster of choosing a summer Saturday night to open all the pubs in England for the first time in three months. And so it will continue in the face of a still unknowable virus and a government of still uncharted incompetence.
And yet, if attention is paid to how people are feeling about the crisis, a very different picture emerges. In my entry for May 27 I drew attention to the social surveys which have been launched at great speed in response to the coronavirus. One of the larger enterprises, the UCL Nuffield Covid 19 Social Study, has now published four further weekly reports, displaying consistent data over three full months of the pandemic.* The questions in the survey cover basic attitudes and emotions in the lockdown. Each topic has its own trajectory since the last week of March, and its own variations by age, income, and living conditions. But standing back from the detail, what is most striking is the absence of change over the period.
Graph after graph proceeds in an even line as each week passes, sometimes on a slightly upward trajectory, sometimes downward. What is missing almost completely is the kind of volatility that we read in the headlines each day. ‘Loneliness’ (see above) has been almost completely flat since the last week of March, unaffected by the recent marginal lifting of the lockdown. ‘Life satisfaction’ has gradually risen from 5 to 6 on a 10-point scale [it should be 7.7]. ‘Happiness’ [you may not know what that is, but here it is measured by the Office for National Statistics wellbeing scale], has been at or just under 6, again on a 10-point scale, with very small fluctuations. Levels of depression and anxiety have been higher than in pre-Covid times but have gradually declined through the Spring and early Summer. Confidence in the English government showed one of the largest short-term changes, falling from 4.5 to 3.5 on a 7-point scale at the beginning of May, but has since levelled out. Notwithstanding this decline, willingness to comply with guidelines has barely altered, slipping over three months from almost 100% to just over 90. The sharpest fall has been in worries about food security, which began at around 60% of the population and are now only a little above zero.
The scale of the sample, which involves 90,000 respondents, inevitably has a dampening effect on variability. Individuals who have lost their jobs, or have been ill, or have suffered serious bereavement, will scarcely report so uneventful an experience. Nonetheless the absence of sudden change across the population in such fundamental areas as depression or life-satisfaction is a necessary corrective to the melodrama played out on the front-pages of the newspapers.
When the scores are broken down by issues such as income or living conditions, there are generally only minor differences. In most categories the young are suffering more than the old, the poor more than the rich, but often the differences are small. Much the largest variable on almost all issues is a prior diagnosis of mental ill-health. Again the scores show little change over the period, but there are significant gaps between the graphs of the well and the unwell. On key issues such as depression, anxiety, loneliness and happiness, the mentally fit are between half and three times better off than those who entered this crisis already in trouble.
According to a report by the charity Mind this morning, almost two thirds of those with a pre-existing mental health problem said it had become worse during the lockdown.** When we consider where the effort should be placed in alleviating the consequence of the pandemic, the mental wellbeing of the population at the outset of the crisis will require particular attention.
* Covid-19 Social Study Results Releases 1-14