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Risky business – COVID-19 risk perception going into summer 2021

  • Blog
  • 27th May 2021

In one month, the UK is set to remove all remaining coronavirus restrictions – people will then be able to meet who they like, where they like. The success of the UK’s coronavirus vaccination programme – with 72.5% of adults having already received at least one dose – means that the country is now well-positioned to reopen without risking a serious nationwide resurgence of the virus. 

But, as shown by the recent outbreak in Bolton, coronavirus still has the potential to cause serious harm to UK communities. Consequently the public still has an important role to play in keeping infection rates low this summer, by taking practical steps that help to limit the spread of COVID-19. Our research indicates that we should redouble efforts to inform people about how coronavirus spreads and what they can do to protect themselves from catching the virus.

We last measured the UK public’s understanding of coronavirus risk in November 2020, and found that, by and large, people had a pretty good sense of what kinds of activities were riskier than others. But, we also found that they were probably underestimating how much safer it was to meet others outdoors rather than inside. Since then, “Fresh Air” has been added to the government’s ‘Hands, Face, Space’ guidance.

To see if people’s perceptions of coronavirus risk have shifted since then, we collected fresh data from 4,000-5,000 adults in England in March – May 2021. Here are three key findings:

1. People continue to have sensible intuitions about what kinds of social settings are riskier than others

We showed people a selection of short text descriptions of different everyday scenarios, then asked how likely they thought it was that someone would catch or spread coronavirus in that situation.  Responses were largely sensible. Respondents rated crowded indoor settings such as busy meetings in people’s homes or playgroups or church services as much riskier than situations involving groups of people interacting briefly in outdoor locations such as parks or takeaway restaurants.

2. People thought vaccination and face masks were the most effective way to reduce transmission riskbut may still be undervaluing the benefits of meeting outdoors

Given the risk involved in meeting others is also influenced by what safety measures people take, we also tested what weight people put on 4 different kinds of precaution. We showed people one of 16 different descriptions of a social meeting, and varied these in terms of location (outdoors vs indoors), mask-wearing (masks vs no masks worn), number of people present ( 2 vs 10), and vaccination status (all present vaccinated vs none vaccinated). We then asked people how risky they thought the situation was in terms of spreading coronavirus.

Once again, people had good intuitions; they thought the highest risk scenario was one where an unmasked, unvaccinated group of 10 people met indoors, and that the lowest risk one was where a group of 2 masked, vaccinated people met outdoors – a ranking which reflects the evidence on how coronavirus tends to spread.  

Digging deeper into these same results, we found that of the four main safety precautions we examined, people ranked being vaccinated as the single most effective precaution in terms of reducing transmission risk, with facemasks a close 2nd. People also saw meeting outdoors as less risky than indoors, but considered this a relatively less important precaution.

3. 1 in 4 people don’t know that the vaccine needs time to work

Finally, we tested the extent to which the public was aware that it actually takes several weeks after vaccination for people to develop the antibodies that offer them meaningful protection against coronavirus. Alarmingly, we found that 1 in 4 people thought that the vaccines offer protection more or less immediately – and that this was notably higher among young people. Given that young people will soon begin receiving the vaccine in large numbers, there is a risk that, post-vaccination, they might immediately begin meeting others even before they have developed the antibodies that will protect them from catching the virus or spreading it to others. 


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Stefan Kelly

The Behavioural Insights Team

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Jordan Whitwell-Mak

The Behavioural Insights Team

Dr Mark Egan

Principal Research Advisor

Read more of our COVID-19 work