Although there are signs that scientific advice and political decision-making are diverging – as evidenced by the recent response to the PM’s “Operation Moonshot” plans for mass coronavirus testing – the Government will need communicators who are trusted by the public to deliver messages on the next phase of the pandemic. Our polling suggests that it should once again turn to scientists and doctors.

The British public trusts scientists more than any other group to make decisions about the NHS COVID-19 recovery, according to polling by Incisive Health and polling consultants, Censuswide. Overall, 35% of the British public report trusting scientists most in making decisions about the health service’s COVID-19 recovery, closely followed by doctors at 33%. Levels of trust in other groups are low, with politicians scoring only 4%, hospital managers 9% and civil servants 2%. 15% of respondents say they don’t trust anyone at all.

Implications for COVID-19 communications

The coronavirus pandemic has thrust scientists into the limelight like never before. The results of our polling shows that the Government made the right decision in ensuring that scientific advisors were at the forefront of delivering messages on the pandemic. Despite ‘the science’ often being uncertain and controversial, the results imply that having scientists directly deliver their advice to the public via the media throughout the pandemic has engendered trust.  In contrast, although they claim to be ‘following the science’, advice from politicians has often seemed to clash with their scientific advisors, leading to reports of confusion from the public.

Last week, we saw the return of the Chief Scientific Officer and Chief Medical Officer in announcing the ‘rule of six’ social distancing measures. But the role of scientists in public communications on COVID-19 had, until now, diminished since the ending of the daily press conferences. Approaches taken in areas such as Greater Manchester and Leicester have seen politicians more prominent in communications. In these regions of the North West and West Midlands, two thirds of people trusted either scientists or doctors whereas only 5 and 7%, respectively, reported they trusted politicians to make decisions about the COVID-19 recovery. Ministers and mayors may want to rethink the role of experts as they face up to communicating difficult and often confusing messages on local lockdowns and distancing rules.

Trust in scientists high in the South West

Trust was especially high for scientists and much lower for doctors among people who live in Bristol and the South West of England – areas that faired relatively well during the pandemic. Some 54% of people in Bristol and 47% across the South West region reported that they trusted scientists most compared to only 16% and 22%, respectively, placing their trust in doctors.

Scientists less trusted in EU countries

The situation in the UK contrasts with that in other European countries, where trust in science is lower. In Germany, a quarter (25%) of respondents said they had most trust in scientists, which is the same proportion as said they trusted no one at all. Trust for politicians was generally low – particularly in Italy and Spain, where only 2% reported trust in this group.

Scientists were most trusted across all age groups in the UK, other than 35-44 yr olds who showed a slight preference for doctors (35 vs 31%). This age group were also most likely to trust no one to make decisions than other age groups, reported by 16% of respondents.

Interestingly, people in the UK who use the health service regularly were less likely to trust doctors. Those who use health services more than once a week were much more likely to trust scientists – 41% compared to only 9% who trust doctors.

The polling was conducted as part of a wider survey which looked to understand public attitudes to the COVID-19 recovery and engaging with the healthcare system in a COVID-19 endemic world. The survey also found that around half of the British public are scared to go to hospital for fear of catching COVID-19; and the same proportion are reluctant to go to hospital for fear of burdening the NHS. Following ‘wave 1’ of the pandemic, phone consultations (ahead of face-to-face appointments) are now the most popular way to access non-urgent medical advice.

  • We surveyed 2,000 people per country from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK
  • The survey was conducted by Censuswide between 29.05.2020 – 03.06.2020 – after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in each country
  • Censuswide abide by and employ members of the Market Research Society which is based on the ESOMAR principles