Populus has been tracking which stories the public pay attention to for the past seven years. The coronavirus has reached a level of near-universal focus that no other event has managed.

For the past two weeks, 98 per cent of respondents to the poll mentioned coronavirus spontaneously as the story they had paid most attention to, surpassing the previous record of 90 per cent.

Only terrorist attacks and a few blockbuster political events (the US presidential election on 88 per cent and Theresa May’s Brexit deal defeat on 86 per cent) have come close. No story has received more than a 90 per cent share of attention before, but coronavirus has done that three times.

Where stories appeared multiple times, the highest percentage is shown

When did people really start paying attention? The biggest jump, from 17 to 55 per cent, came in late January when a few cases started to appear in Europe and the United States. Since then coronavirus has been the most noticed story. Throughout February the story cut through to more than half of the population apart from one week when the tragic death of Caroline Flack and the floods in England and Wales divided attention, but that did not last long.

The closer the virus got to home, the more attention it received. It finally became the biggest story on record in the second week of March (on 95 per cent), as Health Minister Nadine Dorries and hundreds of other Brits tested positive, the markets suffered their worst day since the financial crisis, and Italy went into lockdown.

Similar polling to NBC News and the Wall Street Journal shows that the pandemic has received more attention among Americans than any event going back to 2009.

In a perverse way, these results, along with record-breaking audience figures for the Prime Minister’s address to the nation and other news broadcasts, are reassuring.¬† While they do not mean that everyone is following Government advice, the first thing required is for people to pay attention. And that is happening in numbers we have never seen before.

Populus interviews a nationally representative sample of at least 2,000 British adults every week, and asks what news story they have noticed 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.