Dutch public in favour of limited relaxation of coronavirus measures

Huge public response to unique TU Delft choices experiment

News - 06 May 2020 - Communication

Dutch people believe that any relaxation of measures to control the coronavirus should be limited, in order to prevent the healthcare system becoming overstretched. They also think that the measures should not be allowed to sow division: there is no support for lifting restrictions for specific groups. Although they favour a reopening of hairdressers, there is concern among Dutch citizens about the opening of hospitality and entertainment venues. This is according to the online study conducted last week by TU Delft. As many as 30,000 members of the Dutch public took part in this unique experiment, charting their thoughts and preferences on relaxing measures to combat coronavirus. The study was conducted in collaboration with researchers from other universities and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM). Policy staff from the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport and the Ministry of Finance were also closely involved.

The results are available for everyone to access at www.tudelft.nl/en/covidexit.

Top three

According to the study conducted by Niek Mouter, Shannon Spruit, Anatol Itten and Jose Ignacio Hernandez from the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management, most Dutch people would like to see a limited relaxation of the coronavirus measures. There is little support for more far-reaching relaxations that could cause the healthcare system to become heavily overstretched.

Participants who took part in the consultation were most likely to recommend the option: ‘Employees in contact professions (e.g. hairdressers) are allowed to work again’. This relaxation option is popular across various categories of the Dutch population, suggesting widespread support.

The two remaining options in the top three are: ‘Businesses other than hospitality and contact professions will reopen’ and ‘Direct family members from another household do not need to keep a 1.5-metre distance’.

Only together

Dutch people also believe it is important that any relaxation of measures should lead to ‘unity’ rather than ‘division’. It is feared that the sense of solidarity among Dutch citizens and the support for government policy will vanish if the Cabinet chooses to lift restrictions for a specific group of Dutch people (e.g. the North of the Netherlands, Dutch people who are immune to COVID-19, or young people up to 25). Dutch people are also concerned about reopening hospitality and entertainment businesses. For example, they fear that excessive alcohol consumption could prevent Dutch people from adhering to coronavirus measures, such as the 1.5-metre distance rule.

The research method

The study, known as a Participatory Value Evaluation (PVE), places participants in a game-like setting, in which they adopt the perspective of the Cabinet. Participants were shown which options for relaxation the Cabinet could choose and given a list of the positive and negative effects of these measures. However, a constraint was placed on participants’ choices. They were not permitted to make a choice that would cause pressure on the healthcare system to increase by more than 50%. Participants were then asked what they would advise the Cabinet to do. As participants were not able to choose all of the relaxation options, they were forced to make a real decision. Mouter: ‘If you permit people in contact professions, such as hairdressers, to return to work, it may be good for the economy, but the number of coronavirus infections will increase again. By having to make the decision themselves, people gain an insight into the negative and positive consequences of different measures.’

Screenshot of the main screen of the PVE (Dutch only)

Great response

Although the researchers initially expected a total response of 10,000, the website actually attracted 25,000 visitors within hours of opening (causing the servers to go offline temporarily). Ultimately, more than 100,000 people have visited the site in the last seven days and 30,000 people completed the survey. ‘This number exceeded our expectations. It’s good to see that people are eager to share their views on the various scenarios,’ says Mouter.

Majority approval for method

Participants welcomed the opportunity to use this PVE as a way of giving advice on relaxing coronavirus measures. As many as 80% consider it to be an effective method for involving Dutch people in the choices that the government must make. ‘This gives me a better understanding of the choice that politicians face’, ‘You experience the responsibility that policy-makers also experience’, and ‘A great way of enabling people to become more directly involved in politics’.

Expert advice more important than advice from citizens

In the light of this opportunity to see things from the Cabinet’s perspective as part of this survey, it appears that the vast majority of people believe that the advice of scientists should be given greater weight than that of citizens. A minority of participants (5%) take the view that citizens’ advice from this kind of consultation should be given greater weight in government decision-making than that of scientists. Some 69% of participants believe that scientists’ advice should be given greater weight and 26% feel that the government should give equal weight to the advice of citizens and that of experts.

Study to be continued

With the current study almost completed, the next is also about to start. ‘We will continue with a study on the longer-term choices. As before, anyone will be able to take part. Ultimately, the question is what we do until there’s a vaccine’, explains Mouter. For this study, Mouter and his colleagues are collaborating with scientists at Erasmus MC and Utrecht University, who are working on epidemiological models.

Participatory Value Evaluation (PVE)

Mouter: ‘In recent years, Participatory Value Evaluation has been applied in various fields in the Netherlands, including transport and mobility, climate adaptation, the energy transition and healthcare. The WHO has recently also shown interest in the method. It offers significant advantages compared to standard opinion polls. These are often too generic to be of much use in evaluating specific policy (‘Should the emphasis in the coronavirus crisis be more on healthcare or the economy?’). People find it particularly difficult to weigh up considerations of this kind. This is especially the case for the type of moral dilemmas we are currently facing. Making choices between different scenarios suits people better and results in more reliable assessments of the population’s preferences.’

More information

The data collection was financed by the TU Delft COVID-19 Response Fund

 View the results at https://www.tudelft.nl/en/covidexit

Read Niek Mouter’s related TU Delft story: Involving the public in diabolical policy dilemmas (In Dutch only)

Contact and homepage for Niek Mouter

Contact Roy Meijer (TU Delft Science Information Officer), +31 6 14015008, r.e.t.meijer@tudelft.nl

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