Our latest Ipsos MORI Issues Index poll shows the NHS and Brexit continuing to dominate public concern.
Overall the NHS is top, perhaps the result of a month of headlines about Aussie flu and “winter pressures” forcing the postponement of elective operations in some hospitals. 55% say the health service is an important issue, up ten percentage points from December 2017 (45%). Aside from a peak at last year’s election, the last time the NHS was a concern for this much of the British public was April 2002 – when then-Chancellor Gordon Brown announced a 1p increase in National Insurance contributions to provide more funds to the service.
This surge pushes Brexit into second position, with 46% saying our departure from the EU is a big worry. But we’re still very concerned about Brexit, and many see it as a more serious issue than the NHS; when asked to name the one key issue facing Britain 29% say it is Brexit, not far off double the proportion who say the same for the NHS (18%).
But although the NHS and Brexit may dominate, there are many other issues the Britons are worried about. There are four issues – immigration, housing, education and poverty – all tied in third place, with around a fifth of the public considering each to be a big problem. Worries about Britain’s economy are at their lowest point since December 2007, despite pessimism about the economy rising again over the last couple of years.
This increasing diversity of concern is another trend; we explored this further in our Five Tribes of Brexit Britain report late last year.
We’ve been more worried about the NHS before
The National Health Service has been on Britain’s list of issues since our very first poll, in September 1974. Against this 44-year context, our current level of concern is somewhat lower than previous peaks, but still well above the long-term average. And since 2008 there has been a clear upward trajectory to our level of worry that shows no sign of abating.
The highest ever levels of concern were recorded in the early years of New Labour when funding was last a major concern – in February 2002 nearly three quarters (72%) of the public mentioned the NHS as a major issue. There was another peak in January 1988 at 64% when, following headlines about the postponement of operations at Birmingham Children’s Hospital due to lack of funding, Margaret Thatcher announced during a live TV interview that a review of the NHS would be taking place.
We’re all concerned about the NHS now
Looking in detail at the latest results, the striking thing is how uniform concern about the NHS is across social groups. Labour and Conservative supporters, who disagree on the importance of immigration, as well as on education, defence and poverty, are united in their concern about the NHS.
And similarly, if we divide the population into six groups by age and social grade, five out of six groups put the NHS at the top of the tree. The only group who don’t see the NHS as the biggest issue are older people from social grades ABC1 – but it’s not very far behind their key issue, Brexit:
By contrast, while Brexit is also important for many groups, there is a greater difference of emphasis – it is a bigger issue for men, Conservatives and those from social grades ABC1 than it is for women, Labour supporters and those from social grades C2DE.
What’s changed since last year?
Looking back to January 2017, in many ways Britons’ concerns now are pretty similar – the NHS was top, with Brexit in second overall but leading on the “single most important” measure. Across the year, Brexit and NHS have swapped between first and second positions in the ranking. The former was top issue for five months, and the latter was ahead for seven – peaking at the General Election, when six-in-ten Britons saw the NHS as a major problem (61%).
A key point of difference is the decline in the proportion who see immigration as a big problem. After being the biggest issue facing Britain on average for three years in a row from 2014 to 2016, our 2017 aggregate data tracks its decline in salience, from 31% last January to 20% now.
What can we expect to worry about next?
2018 looks set to be another year dominated by our key issues – NHS and Brexit. But some other issues may rise to fill the space being left by the decline in concern about immigration and the economy. One key issue to watch is housing, which has risen slowly since 2010 to levels that were last recorded in the seventies.
There are others too that may become more important – education or inequality may rise, or concern about crime could rise from recent record lows. But whatever happens in 2018, it is likely that public opinion will still continue to be shaped by these two top issues, the NHS and Brexit.
Michael Clemence is a research manager at Ipsos MORI. For more information on the 2018 Issues Index, visit the website here