Government’s Covid-19 welfare response saw public trust soar

Professor Cathal O’Donoghue, Established Chair in Social and Public Policy at NUI Galway
Mar 23 2021 Posted: 09:26 GMT

NUI Galway research shows novel policy changes from the onset of the pandemic helped engender support for public health measures

Public trust in Government soared in 2020 as a result of policies to improve income protection during the Covid-19 crisis, research from NUI Galway has revealed.

Professor Cathal O’Donoghue, Established Chair in Social and Public Policy at NUI Galway, examined how social protection was funded during the pandemic and how the protection of people’s purchasing power led to increased support for Government and public health measures.

The research, which has been presented at both the United Nations and the World Health Organisation, looked at social policy responses to the Great Recession of 2008-2012 and the Covid-19 crisis and assessed their impact on preserving living standards in Ireland.

Data showed public trust in the Government reached a low of 18% in 2009, whereas the efforts taken in 2020 to protect people’s purchasing power saw the same measure reach a peak of 66%. We find that trust in government saw a big rise between 2019 and 2020 and the growth continued before it plateaued into 2021.

Professor O’Donoghue said: “The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Ireland’s economy and public finances has been deeper, faster and more broadly felt than the devastation wreaked by the financial crises that swept Europe from 2008 to 2012.

“But rapid response and novel initiatives to protect living standards of a large proportion of the population ensured trust in Government and backing for difficult but necessary public health measures.”

The research paper, published by the Society for the Study of Economic Inequality, identified a number of issues around the building of public trust, including:

:: Welfare generosity and coordinating private institutions enabled the protection of purchasing power or capacity to spend. It was a demonstration of “in it together”.

:: The inadequacy of the existing social protection system was acknowledged at the onset of the crisis. New more generous policy instruments were introduced to insulate citizens from the shock and more than 900,000 people drew upon Covid related payments in May 2020.

:: Due to the importance of non-discretionary spending - housing costs, child care and commuting - policies were targeted at the private sector such as mortgage interest deferrals, rent freeze and non-completion of child care contracts. Transport savings added another layer of protection right across the income distribution, unlike in the financial crisis, where every decile saw a reduction.

:: The reforms created political sustainability as more have a stake in the system that was there when they needed it.

:: Improving trust made it easier to get cooperation among the public and the transmission rate of the virus under control. There was a 14% increase in Trust in Government between 2019 and 2020. There was a 54% fall in Trust in Government after the 2008 crash.

:: The European Central Bank took a faster more sensitive approach to providing liquidity in the pandemic. Ireland’s good track record since the 2008 crash ensured the state could avail of lower interest rates and cheaper borrowing.

:: The IMF have reported that Ireland, as a % of GDP, spent the 8th highest of 24 European countries reported. The European Commission found that only four other European countries had welfare policy impacts that had a greater impact on disposable income (Austria, Germany, Latvia and Malta).

Professor O’Donoghue added: “The extent of the Covid-19 crisis posed significant challenges to Ireland’s welfare state due to the number of people who suddenly became unemployed, the higher share of all family members losing their job and a higher share of middle class families out of work.

“In an era of volatility in relation to climate change, globalisation and ageing, there is an ongoing need for institutions to protect people from economic swings to provide confidence in future and enhance trust in institutions.”

The study forms part of a Health Research Board funded research programme on the Covid-19 response.


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