Fears of social divisions re-emerging as lockdown unity fades: new research

Posted on 30 July 2020

Clapping for carers during lockdown. Picture by Simon James

New research published today finds an increased sense of unity among the public following the shared experience of COVID-19 – but warns that divisions may be re-emerging as the lockdown eases.

The new findings, from British Future on behalf of the /together coalition, are released to mark the launch of talk/together, which aims to be the biggest public conversation seen in the UK, seeking to find out how we can build more shared moments that bring people together. It asks how we can keep hold of the new community spirit built up during lockdown; and how we can help to bridge some of the angry divides of the past.

ICM polled people in March and again in May/June for the report, ‘Remembering the kindness of strangers: Division, unity and social connection during and beyond COVID-19.’ Online discussion groups with members of the public across the country, and WhatsApp diaries over the four weeks that followed, probed deeper into how people were feeling across the country.

The report finds that people liked the new connectedness and community spirit that developed at this most difficult of times – and want to keep hold of it.  Yet much of our sense of division has not gone away. The ICM research found:

  • We do feel less divided since Covid: less than half of us (45%) now say that “The UK has never felt so divided in my lifetime,” a fall of 15 percentage points from the 60% who felt this in March.
  • We’re still too focused on what divides us: six in ten people (61%) agree that “As a society, we tend to dwell on our differences rather than what we have in common” – a ten-point drop from 70% in March.
  • We need to learn to disagree better: six in ten (62%) say that “As a society, we have lost the ability to discuss politics without getting angry and abusive.”
  • We get on well locally but worry about the national picture: three-quarters of the public (77%) say people from different backgrounds get on well in their local community but at national level that drops to 61%, with a third of people (31%) feeling people from different backgrounds don’t get on in Britain today. (May/June).
  •  There’s an appetite for social connection: 80% of people agree that it’s important “for people to have the opportunity to meet and interact with people who are different from themselves.”
  • But we don’t get the chance to do it: only a quarter of us (27%) say they often get a chance to meet people from a different background (in their ‘normal’ life before social distancing). In March only a few more said the same (32%).
  •  Online connection is not like the real thing: three-quarters of people (75%) agree that “Connecting with people online is great, but it is no substitute for interacting with people face-to-face in the real world.” (May/June)
  • Sport brings us together like nothing else: national sporting events like the Euros or Olympics – both cancelled this year due to COVID-19 – help bring people together, according to two-thirds of people (67%).

(2,010 GB adults were interviewed by ICM between 29 May and 2 June 2020. Previously 2,006 adults were surveyed between 6 and 9 March 2020).

The Rt Revd Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds and chair of /together trustees, said:

“Talk/together is a conversation that everyone can be part of – about what unites and divides us, and how we can help reconnect with each other. We want to find out how we keep hold of the new community spirit built up during lockdown – and help bridge the angry divisions of the past.

“Millions of people came together on the NHS’s birthday to spend time with neighbours and say thank you to all those who are helping us get through the Covid crisis. That showed how much we’ve relied on each other of late – and the value we all place on social connection.”

Jill Rutter, author of the new report and Director of Strategy for British Future, said:

“There’s a risk that past divides are re-emerging as society starts to re-open. The shared experience of lockdown made many people feel more connected to their neighbours and local community. Now that sense of togetherness is starting to fray. The good news is that people would rather we kept hold of it – and talk/together aims to find out how can do that.”

Talk/together aims to be Britain’s biggest-ever public conversation about what unites and divides us and what can bring us closer together. It starts with an online survey that everyone is invited to complete at www.together.org.uk. In the coming months /Together will be hosting conversations with members of the public in every nation and region of the UK, as well as with local experts, charities, councils and faith and community groups. Along with further nationally-representative research, it will form the most authoritative picture yet of how COVID-19 has changed our society and what has stayed the same; of the divisions we fear; and the changes that people want to see in order to build a kinder, closer and more connected society.

British Future is proud to be a founding member of /together, a coalition that everyone is invited to join, from community groups to some of the UK’s best-known organisations. Our aim is to bring people together and bridge divides, to help build a kinder, closer and more connected country. Find out more at and share your views in the talk/together survey at www.together.org.uk

 Download the report here