Public Expectations of the COVID-19 Outbreak


24th March 2020

The numbers of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Britain have been rapidly increasing. On 16th March a report by the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team said that, “In the (unlikely) absence of any control measures or spontaneous changes in individual behaviour, … we predict 81% of the GB and US populations would be infected over the course of the epidemic.” They also said, “In total, in an unmitigated epidemic, we would predict approximately 510,000 deaths in GB and 2.2 million in the US, not accounting for the potential negative effects of health systems being overwhelmed on mortality.” That would be close to 0.8% of the GB population.

How do these estimates compare with the expectations of the British public?

Deltapoll interviewed a representative sample of 1545 adults in Britain between 13th and 16th March, just before the Imperial report came out. Respondents were asked, Overall, what percentage of people in the UK do you think will be INFECTED by the coronavirus outbreak as a whole?”

The response categories were in intervals of ten percentage points (0-10%, 10-20%, 20-30% and so on). Excluding the 9% of respondents said “Don’t Know”, as many as 97% of respondents thought that the infection rate would be lower than the 81% estimated by the Imperial team for an unconstrained pandemic.

Among those whose expectations were below 81%, answers were very evenly spread, with close to 10% of respondents for every category. The most common responses were between 10% and 40%, with 55% of respondents expecting an infection rate of 40% or less. The average expected infection rate, of between 30% and 40%, is much lower than the Imperial team estimated for a pandemic.

Deltapoll also asked, “And overall, what percentage of people in the UK do you think will DIE from the coronavirus outbreak as a whole?”

Excluding the “Don’t Know” respondents, this time 12% of the total, expectations for the population mortality rate from COVID-19 were much closer to those estimated by the Imperial team for a pandemic. Just over a third said they thought 1% or fewer would die from COVID-19.

But many expected many more deaths, with an overall average expectation that just over 3% of UK population would die from the coronavirus outbreak.

Expectations about infection rates and population mortality rates are correlated: people who expect more infections tend to expect more deaths. But overall the average expectations suggest a mortality rate among those infected of around 10% or more, far higher than indicated by the evidence at the time of the survey or since.

Public expectations may have changed since the survey was done. As cases and deaths have risen dramatically, people are likely to have revised up their expectations of the total numbers of eventual infections and deaths. But since there hasn’t been any significant change in the information about the mortality rate among the infected, people may still be of the view that COVID-19 is a more deadly disease for those who catch it than evidence suggests. However, if the pandemic is not brought under control, the public may still be seriously underestimating the number of people who will be affected.

Deltapoll surveyed 1,545 adults in Britain online between the 13th and 16th March 2020. Data are weighted to be representative of the adult population of Britain.

Stephen FisherAuthor: Stephen Fisher