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How the pandemic has changed public attitudes to risk

23 May 2021

The past 12 months have been a period of turmoil and uncertainty unlike anything most of us have ever experienced. We wanted to understand how this has impacted people’s attitudes to risk and what this means for businesses, government, and society.

Our survey of 2,000 UK adults showed the public’s top three concerns are pandemics and other health crises (84%), rising unemployment (82%) and cyber crime (82%). This was closely followed by climate change (81%) and daily living costs (80%).

This closely mirrors the concerns of UK business leaders. Pandemics and other health crises, cyber threats, and uncertain economic growth were cited as the biggest threats to growth in our 24th Annual CEO Survey.

Top concerns for UK public: 84% said it's pandemics and other health crises; 82% thinks it's rising unemployment; 82% thinks it's cyber crime; 81% think it's climate change; 80% thinks it's daily living costs

Older people are more likely to worry about cyber crime, with 90% of those aged 55+ citing it as a concern compared to 74% of people aged 18-34. The public’s heightened concern on this issue is likely driven by an increase in phishing scams during the pandemic. For example, our cyber security threat intelligence team has found that cyber criminals have targeted people with fraudulent emails about mask availability, financial aid schemes and the vaccine roll out.

Climate change is the most notable difference between the public and UK CEOs. This could suggest that businesses need to do more to keep up with public opinion on sustainability and climate change, particularly as COP26 will bring the issue into greater focus later this year.

Top concerns for UK CEO's: 94% think it's pandemics and other health crises; 91% think it's cyber threats; 86% think it's uncertain economic growth; 77% think it's policy uncertainty; 73% think it's availability of keys skills

Impact on daily life

Though climate change and cyber crime are among the UK public’s top concerns, they aren’t seen as urgent issues that will have an immediate impact on our daily lives. The onus is therefore on governments and businesses to take responsibility for considering these risks as part of their long-term strategic agendas.

Impact vs Concern

Instead, people expect economic issues to have the most tangible impact on daily life over the next 2-3 years. Our research asked about a range of factors, including automation of jobs, terrorism, political uncertainty and declining trust in national institutions. Pandemics and other health crises were understandably seen as most likely to have a 'high' or 'very high' impact at 41%, followed by day-to-day living costs (39%), potential recession (36%), increasing taxes (35%) and low economic growth (31%).

Issues the UK public think will have an impact on their daily lives: 41% thinks it's pandemics and other health crises; 39% think it's day-to-day living costs; 36% think it's potential recession; 35% thinks it's increasing taxes; 31% think it's low economic growth

This suggests people are worried about the UK’s economic recovery and expect to have less disposable income over the next few years. This could cause them to be more cautious and put off any major spending decisions in the short term. We found the pandemic has made the public slightly more risk averse, with a third (36%) saying they would be more risk averse compared to 54% who said there would be no change in their behaviours. However, half of respondents (49%) said it had made them more stressed, compared to 43% who said there had been no change in their stress levels.

The public’s downbeat view contrasts with the optimism shown by the UK government and businesses. In our CEO Survey, 77% of UK business leaders said they expect the economy to improve this year, while 89% were confident about their organisation's profitability over the next 12 months.

There is an opportunity for businesses and governments to better understand the public’s pessimism around the economic recovery. They can then take action to provide reassurance about job security and economic growth, so there is shared optimism about the nation’s ability to reimagine itself on the global stage post-pandemic and post-Brexit.

Changing behaviours

To understand whether the changes in people’s behaviours are likely to be permanent, we asked the public to predict which activities they would do more or less often when the government measures are eventually lifted. Wellbeing is high on the agenda, with exercise (31%) and finding ways to manage stress levels (29%) among the activities that people expect to do more often post-pandemic.

In terms of spending, people expect to save more money (32%), while the shift to ecommerce appears to be longer term. With consumer confidence at its highest level for more than a decade, our survey found that more than a third (38%) said they would shop more online, while a similar number (36%) said they would shop less often on their local high street.

Activities the public will do more often post-pandemic: 38% will shop online more; 32% will save money more; 31% will exercise more

The biggest change in behaviours might be in the way we travel. Some 41% of respondents said they would use public transport less often, while 36% said they would take fewer foreign holidays.

Businesses need to be alert to these changing behaviours so they can deliver the right products and services in a way that consumers demand, otherwise they risk losing competitive advantage.

Activities the public will do less often: 41% will travel on public transport less; 36% will travel abroad less; 36% will shop on the local high street less

Who is responsible for managing risk?

Ultimately, the UK public thinks the government is best placed to deal with the risks facing society. While 59% of respondents said the government can 'definitely' or 'probably' help mitigate these risks, this falls to 37% for individuals and just 24% for businesses. This indicates the public either fails to understand the role and the stake businesses have in managing the current and future risk or that the public simply doesn't trust that businesses will play their part in addressing risk and helping the nation recover.

It’s clear that major risk events like the pandemic require a collective response. As such, there is an opportunity for businesses to demonstrate the value they bring when collaborating with the government to solve society's biggest problems.

Contact us

Mohammad Khan

Mohammad Khan

Partner - Head of General Insurance, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7739 874033

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