The coronavirus has dominated public attention throughout February, according to the latest polling by Populus, to such an extent that Downing Street’s strategy of lying low on the issue so far may no longer be viable.

Last week, no less than 76 per cent of the public said that the spread of the virus was the story to which they had paid most attention. Even Brexit reached such a commanding share on only a handful of occasions, and the coronavirus has now been the most noticed story for the past five weeks.

Reports of the virus spreading to Europe appear to have increased public concern in recent days, so it is unlikely that interest will dissipate any time soon, given that the number of cases in the UK is set to rise. It is for this reason that Boris Johnson might decide to take more visible steps in the coming days to demonstrate that the virus is at the top of the government’s priority list.

Other government policies will not distract from the virus. In a good test of the extent to which policy announcements cut through, the prime minister’s decision to go ahead with the HS2 was clearly beaten by the spread of the infection: only 4 per cent offered HS2 as their most noticed story that week versus 65 per cent for the coronavirus.

Moreover, the unveiling one week later of a new “points-based” immigration policy (4 per cent) was overshadowed by both the virus (31 per cent) and the tragic death of Caroline Flack (25 per cent).

And the spate of floods across England and Wales – another issue on which Johnson has been accused of absence – was also more memorable for the public (reaching a high of 22 per cent) than either HS2 or the immigration plans.

As important as those policies may be in the long run, it is the coronavirus curveball that has the captive audience awaiting a robust and reassuring response.

Populus interviews a nationally representative sample of at least 2,000 British adults every week, and asks what news story they have noticed the most. The question is open-ended and participants can name any story.

Will Clothier is a Consultant at Populus


Will Clothier

Will is a Senior Consultant at Populus, where he advises corporate and public sector clients on their reputation strategies with key audiences. He leads projects analysing the views of the public, key demographic groups, and senior stakeholders. He works with charities, political organisations, and household names across a range of sectors.