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More Covid restrictions or a faster return to normal? How the Irish public feels about public health rules

Amárach Research gives a glimpse into how people currently feel about restrictions.

Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

AHEAD OF THE one-year anniversary of the first Covid-19 restrictions in Ireland, the Irish public still believes that the country is re-opening at the right pace.

Polling carried out by Amárach Research on behalf of the Department of Health shows that despite being more angry frustrated in recent weeks than at any stage over the past 12 months, the largest proportion of the population believes that the current level of restrictions is about right. 

The company has carried out weekly representative surveys of the Irish public since the beginning of the pandemic.

These polls have gauged, among other things, how Irish people feel about Covid-19 restrictions that are in place at a given time, which measures the public are complying with, and a range of positive and negative emotions that people have felt in recent days.

The first Covid-19 restrictions were introduced in Ireland on 12 March last year, in response to the country’s first death as a result of the virus.

Restrictions have been eased, re-introduced and altered in all kinds of ways over that time, but behavioural polling shows that most people are still reporting high levels of compliance with restrictions.

Out of 2,200 people who were asked on Monday of this week the extent to which they are obeying restrictions on a scale of 1 (indicating ‘not at all) to 7 (indicating ‘very much so’) , the average score was 6.3 – consistent with levels seen since last summer.

poll4 Source: Amárach Research/Department of Health

More than half (51%) of respondents responded with a 7, while a third (33%) responded with a 6.

This week, behavioural economist Dr Pete Lunn of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) said that current trends showed that fears in March last year that people would soon become fatigued with having to comply with health restrictions.

“That argument, as it turned out, was very, very wide of the mark and when we looked for evidence for it at the time, we couldn’t find any,” he said.

“We now know that the public’s ability to respond to this disease and to change their behaviour to limit the spread of [Covid-19] is far in excess of what was predicted by those people at that time.”

However despite this positive polling, many are also reporting higher levels of negative emotions now than at any stage during the pandemic.

A higher proportion of respondents said this week that they felt angry, intolerant and desperate than at any point since last March. A large proportion of people also said they felt stressed (36%), frustrated (36%), sad (29%) and lonely (24%).

These feelings suggest that people are fed up with the pandemic, but Lunn explained that there was a “big difference between how people are feeling and how they behave”.

“Of course, it’s incredibly difficult time, but that does not necessarily mean that people are going to give up and they’re not going to stick with it,” he said.

Amárach’s polling also provides an insight into how people feel about easing restrictions after the vaccine rollout starts.

The Department’s poll poses this question in a ‘yes/no’ way: “Once people start getting the Covid-19 vaccine in Ireland should the Government lift Covid-related restrictions for everyone, including those who have not been vaccinated yet?”

Polling carried out on Monday this week shows that around one in four people (24%) believe this should happen.

Support for easing restrictions when the vaccine rollout has started is higher among under 35s, rising to almost one in three (31%), but overwhelming support across all ages is for restrictions to remain in place as the rollout continues.

Poll1 Source: Amárach Research/Department of Health

The question is not without its limits; it does not indicate which restrictions people think should be lifted, or what time-frame people would like to see them lifted by.

However, it does allow us to see how people feel about the easing of current restrictions in light of the vaccine rollout.

Returning to normal

The Amárach polling also provides numerous insights into how people feel about the level of restrictions in ways that are not contingent on the rollout of vaccines.

Several questions in the weekly survey ask people what their preferences are in relation to various health measures in place right now.

People were asked about the pace at which Ireland is trying to return to normal and, separately, whether there should be more restrictions.

One question asks how people feel about the pace at which Ireland is “trying to return to normal”, with five options: much too quickly; a bit too quickly; at about the right pace; a bit too slowly; and much too slowly.

At almost every point in the polling, most respondents said Ireland is trying to return at about the right pace, including more than two in five (42%) surveyed on Monday of this week.

The only point at which that answer has not been the most common given was during October, when one in three people (35%) said Ireland was returning to normal too quickly. At the end of the month, Ireland introduced Level 5 restrictions for six weeks.

Polling carried out this week shows that the proportion of people who think Ireland is not returning to normal quickly enough, either ‘a bit too slowly’ (20%) or ‘much too slowly’ (9%), are higher than at any stage during the pandemic.

Poll2 Source: Amárach Research/Department of Health

And the proportion of people who think that Ireland is moving too fast have fallen since Level 5 restrictions were re-introduced in January.

This week, the proportion of respondents who said that Ireland is returning to normal ‘a bit too quickly’ (20%) fell to its lowest-ever level. The number of those who think Ireland is moving ‘much too quickly’ (9%) also neared its lowest-ever level of 7% last June.

Interestingly, the number of people who said this week that Ireland is moving too quickly (29%) is the same as the number of those who said Ireland is moving too slowly (29%).

However, both are trumped by the higher number of those who think things are happening at the right pace (42%). 

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Level of restrictions 

A general question also asks whether people think the reaction of the government to the “current coronavirus outbreak is appropriate, too extreme or not sufficient”?

Responses to this have also wavered over time, with higher proportions generally believing the response has been ‘appropriate’, aside from during the second and third waves in October and January.

On Monday, almost half of people surveyed (46%) said the government’s response was ‘appropriate’ – not far off the number of people who think things are going at the right pace as outlined above.

However, this has fallen significantly ever since November, when almost two in three (65%) felt the government’s response was ‘appropriate’.

The decline has meant a rise in the number of people who believe the government’s response is ‘not sufficient’.

This figure generally increases when rates of infection are higher: more people said the response was ‘insufficient’ during the second wave last October and after Christmas than those who said the response was ‘appropriate’.

Sufficiebnt Source: Amárach Research/Department of Health

Although more of those polled on Monday say the current response is ‘appropriate’, almost four in ten (39%) people still believe the response is ‘not sufficient’.

Meanwhile, the proportion of those who believe the response is ‘too extreme’ – while much smaller – is also on the rise.

On Monday, one in seven (15%) of those polled said the current response is ‘too extreme’ – its highest-ever level and an increase on 10% of respondents saying this in February and 6% saying it in January.

Most people, however, do not believe the government should introduce more restrictions (although a sizeable proportion do).

Polling over time shows that the number of people who think there should be more restrictions rises when infection rates increase, and drop at times when Ireland is living under more restrictive guidelines.

This week, almost half (47%) of respondents told Amárach Research that there should be no further restrictions, with two in five (40%) saying there should be.

poll3 Source: Amárach Research/Department of Health

Support for more restrictions has fallen the longer Level 5 has gone on, dropping from 59% in January and 46% in February to 40% this week.

Conversely, those saying there should not be more restrictions has increased from 26% in January to 40% in February to 47% this week.

However, one should be cautious not to gauge public support for a Zero Covid policy from this data: the poll does not ask respondents what type of restrictions they want if more were introduced – ultimately, the survey only tells us about what was asked.

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