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Fit’s the SCOOP… With COVID in Scotland?

By Fraser McMillan, Jac Larner and Ailsa Henderson

Descriptive data tables available here

As part of its ambition to provide regular data to a wider community of users, the Scottish Election Study won ESRC funding in 2020 to start a Scottish Opinion Monitor, or “SCOOP” for short. The cross-sectional SCOOP will run three times a year on top of regular SES panel studies conducted at the time of national elections. It will be used to collect time series data on evolving public attitudes to Scotland’s political parties, the constitutional question and other important issues. This will help us understand what Scots think about politics and parties between elections, rather than only during them.  We aim to release full individual-level SCOOP datasets within six weeks of fieldwork so that a wider community of scholars, stakeholders and interested members of the public can get regular access to data on public opinion in Scotland. 

In the first of these surveys, run earlier this month, we asked Scots a range of questions about their political preferences as well as their evaluations of various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s response to it. Due to the rapidly evolving Omicron situation, we have opted to release COVID-related information information early and provide a first interpretation of it in this post. Frequencies for questions are available on our website and the full dataset will be available in early January. We hope this blog will contribute constructively to public debate and understandings of Scottish attitudes to the pandemic.

The questionnaire was administered by YouGov to a sample of 1,259 Scottish residents, aged 16+, between 3 and 10 December, 2021. From 2022 the SCOOP will typically run in February, June, and October.

Knowledge – Just the FACTS?

In June 2020, as most of Scotland entered phase two of a roadmap out of the first lockdown, the Scottish Government introduced a new slogan – FACTS – to help citizens memorise important public health measures. FACTS is an acronym which stands for several different concepts:

  • Face coverings (in indoor settings)
  • Avoid crowds
  • Clean hands
  • Two metres (of social distancing from other households)
  • Self-isolate (and book a test if you have symptoms)

Much like the UK Government’s “Hands, Face, Space” slogan for England, the FACTS guidance was a key component of the Scottish Government’s communication strategy. FACTS was promoted on posters, in advertisements and by the First Minister and other Scottish Government officials in televised briefings, parliamentary statements and interviews. It was used for around a year until most of the measures were abandoned and something resembling pre-pandemic normality was restored in Summer 2021. Nevertheless, readers may be familiar with the FACTS guidance from the posters and stickers that still adorn many a shop window in Scotland.

Most of the specific concepts referred to in FACTS are perfectly reasonable on their own, and the acronym itself is memorable. That said, it contained a lot of different elements, some of which represented legal requirements (e.g. self-isolate if you experience symptoms) and others more general advice (e.g. avoid crowds). The letters were also potentially ambiguous: for example, T could also feasibly stand for “test” or “temperature”. Additionally, the acronym emphasised hand hygiene – which was promoted heavily in the earliest days of the pandemic before much was known about how the virus spreads – over significantly more important mitigations like ventilation.

In other words, FACTS contained a lot of information, but did it seek to convey rather too much? Public health messaging should ideally be clear and simple. Even at face value, FACTS compares unfavourably to other slogans such as Japan’s English language advice to “Avoid the three Cs” – referring to closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact. To gauge the effectiveness of the FACTS slogan in hindsight, as part of the SCOOP, we asked respondents if they could recall the concept each letter stands for.

They could not.

Figure 1 below shows the share of respondents who correctly identified each FACTS concept. In the survey, respondents were given one minute in total to fill in an open text box for each letter, meaning these had to be manually categorised as correct or incorrect after we received the data. We were fairly generous in doing so; if the respondent entered “face” for F or “clean” for C, for example, we considered these correct. We also included a follow up question asking respondents if they had made an honest effort to recall the FACTS without searching the web or asking someone else – the 6.4% of respondents who answered yes to this are excluded from the figures shown below.

Our data show that, apart from “face covering”, which was recalled by 60% of respondents, the vast majority of Scots do not know what the FACTS guidance stands for. For all letters except F, fewer than one third of respondents even offered an answer. The least well-known of all was “two metres”, which just five percent of respondents were able to remember. A substantially larger number believed the T stood for “test”. This dynamic was also evident for other letters such as S, which many believed to stand for concepts like “stay at home”, “space” or “social distancing”. 

Figure 2 shows the distribution of correct answers; that is, the share of respondents who got a given number of answers correct. Only one percent of Scots were able to accurately identify what every letter stood for. A similar number identified four out of five. Fewer than one in ten were able to identify three or more of the FACTS, and over a third of respondents couldn’t identify a single one. This is quite astonishing bearing in mind just how prominent FACTS was in public health messaging for an entire year.

The Scottish Government might argue that, so long as the acronym got people thinking about steps they could take to keep themselves or others safe, FACTS was something of a success. We cannot claim that the slogan was a wholesale failure, since it may well have operated as a general purpose reminder to follow guidance and behave cautiously. But, given how specific the FACTS guidance was, the challenges citizens faced in recalling its contents demonstrates there is room for improvement in future pandemic messaging. Our SCOOP data suggest that FACTS was, perhaps, a clever acronym in search of a coherent message.

Attitudes – Support for Restrictions

A key component of UK government mitigation efforts rested on the – much challenged – assumption that the wider public had a low appetite for restrictions on their liberty, and that such tolerance would eventually fade. This led the UK government to delay imposing restrictions for fear that the public would not comply with guidance when it was most necessary. 

While the Scottish Government has tended to follow a broadly similar line, it often chose to enter lockdown slightly earlier and exit it slightly later than England. To evaluate the appetite of Scottish voters for various forms of restrictions in future, we asked them what they thought about mandatory face coverings, home working, limiting the number of people one can meet, the closure of bars and restaurants, the closure of schools and a potential full lockdown. In addition, we asked people if they felt these should be in place now, in place if things get a bit worse, a lot worse or should never be implemented again. Obviously, the fieldwork happened a week or two ago, and we might expect that public opinion has shifted in recent days in response to the heightened state of alert around Omicron.

Nonetheless, we can provide an insight into what Scots were thinking at the beginning of the current crisis. The results show varying degrees of support across different measures, but we can clearly distinguish between three types of policies: those that the public is happy to accept now, those the public think should be on the possible menu of options but not implemented just yet, and those regarded as being completely off the table.

In terms of policies that should be in place “now”, almost three quarters (74%) are happy for there to be compulsory masks in shops and public transportation and a plurality (42%) think there should now be a requirement to work from home where it is possible. This compares to single digit support for a full lockdown, the closure of schools, the closure of bars and restaurants and the banning of household visits.

MeasureNowIf a bit worseIf a lot worseNever againDon’t know
Mask wearing746885
Home working422220106
Group size limits142934196
Ban household visits42042296
Close hospitality72146216
Close schools41746276
Full lockdown31046365

And if we look at those policy issues where the public does not now believe that intervention is needed, support is typically lower for introducing it if the situation gets a little bit worse, but rises significantly with virus risk. On banning household visits, for example, 20% would support it if the situation gets a little worse, and 42% if it gets a lot worse. Similar proportions feel the same about closing hospitality, while there is greater reluctance for schools to be closed unless the situation is a lot worse.

On a full lockdown, however, Scots are less certain. Over a third of Scots (36%) think it should never be in place again and almost half think that things would need to get ‘a lot’ worse before it is in place. That said, people support the imposition of a lockdown now (3%) than got the FACTS guidance right, which reflects just how few people understood that slogan. 

In general terms, even before the Omicron situation worsened to the current extent, Scots were qualified and pragmatic in their support for restrictions. Our data also reflect something of a status quo bias, with people strongly inclined to support measures which are currently in place and demonstrating significantly less enthusiasm for things which have been off the table for the last few months. While there is clearly little appetite to go back to the way things were for much of 2020 and 2021, between two thirds and four fifths of respondents remain open, in principle, to stringent measures to control the virus.

Evaluations – Government Competence

Finally, we also asked respondents about how well they believed the Scottish and UK Governments had dealt with various aspects of the pandemic response. Specifically, we asked SCOOP respondents about how good or bad a job both governments were doing of communicating their decisions to the public, finding a balance between locking down and opening up, and handling the vaccine rollout. 

Figure 3 below shows the share of respondents who thought that each government was doing a good job in these areas, measured as the share of people who rated each administration a 4 or above on a 7-point scale from “Very badly” to “Very well”. A majority of respondents think the Scottish Government is doing a good job in all three respects. In particular, respondents were very positive about how the Scottish Government had communicated its decisions – which is perhaps ironic given the lack of awareness of what FACTS stood for. In contrast, far fewer respondents think that the UK Government is doing a good job on communications and handling lockdowns. There is less of a gap for vaccine programme performance, with 55% of Scots giving the UK Government credit versus 64.6% for the Scottish Government.

These competence evaluations do come with a slight health warning, so to speak. As with all such attitudes, it is unclear the degree to which these perceptions are driven by first-hand experience of policy differences (e.g. stricter face mask guidance in Scotland) versus pre-existing political preferences. Although we have no clear way of measuring the precise extent to which each of these contribute to differences in government evaluations, the data we have suggests it is a mixture of both. The table below shows the difference in average government evaluations on each measure for people who intend to vote Yes and No in a future Scottish independence referendum. We calculated the mean value on each 7-point scale for these two groups and then subtracted the UK Government score from the Scottish Government score. 

Yes voters obviously rate the Scottish Government much more highly, particularly on communicating decisions and striking the right balance of lockdown measures. But among No-inclined respondents, there was little difference in evaluations of each administration. The UK Government were judged to have done a superior job on the vaccine rollout, while the Scottish Government are regarded as having communicated slightly better. There was little difference when it came to restrictions, with the UK Government attaining a very slight edge. This suggests that perceptions of pandemic performance are not exclusively driven by pre-existing political preferences.

Indy vote preferenceCommunicationLockdownVaccines
Yes+3.03+2.56+1.63
No+0.54-0.12-0.77

Finally, we also asked respondents whether the various social and economic challenges faced this winter were the result of COVID or Brexit (or both).  More than one in four (27%) believe the current challenges are due to the pandemic, with a further one in five (21%) convinced the current challenges are the result of Brexit. Most often, (40%) Scots tend to think that the combination of the two is to blame for things like shortages and price increases.

Asked if these were external shocks to the system or the result of government mismanagement, the electorate is divided 1:2 in favour of saying government mismanagement is to blame. Among those respondents laying the blame at the feet of government, almost 80% blame the UK administration rather than the devolved one (12%).  

Predictably, these figures vary depending on whether one thinks that the pandemic or Brexit is the source of current difficulties. For those blaming the pandemic over half (54%) blame the UK government, vs just under one third (32%) who blame the Scottish government. Among those who think that Brexit and COVID together are the source of current problems, the proportion of those blaming the UK government jumps to almost eight in ten (78%) compared to just around one in ten for the Scottish government. And if you’re of the view that Brexit alone is to blame for the current situation, more than 90% blame the Conservative government in London and we’re in the single digit territory for those blaming the SNP government in Edinburgh. 

Regardless of the source, people in Scotland are likely to believe that the problems have arrived from outside Scotland’s borders. And, as shown earlier, they are more inclined to think the Scottish Government has handled the pandemic well.

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