Younger Australians perceive fewer people in their neighbourhood are practising social distancing and feel restrictions should last longer, survey finds

While almost 80 per cent of Australians are perceived as practising social distancing, younger Australians are more likely to indicate that fewer people in their neighbourhood are practising the disease-prevention measure, according to the latest survey by the Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic & Social Research at the University of Melbourne.

When asked about their perceptions of social behaviour, the proportion of Australians that thought “most people” to “everyone” in their neighbourhood practised social distancing has remained stable, varying between 76-78 per cent over five weeks. However, the perception – and possibly the practise  – of high levels of social distancing behaviour varies by ages, with around 60 per cent those aged under 34 years and almost 95 per cent of those aged over 55 years reporting that they feel high levels of social distancing is being practised.

A greater proportion of younger survey respondents also reported that restrictions should be eased later (greater than three months) rather than sooner (within three months).

This week’s survey was conducted in the days before the Government’s 8 May announcement of the three-step plan to ease restrictions in Australia, but the Government’s proposed approach corresponds closely to responses to the survey question about easing restrictions. While 25 per cent suggested that government restrictions on social activity, such as dining in restaurants and going to the cinema, should be eased immediately or within the next four weeks, 42 per cent said they should be eased over the next one to three months.

Melbourne Institute Professorial Fellow Professor Ragan Petrie said: “The majority of Australians believe high numbers of people are practising social distancing, however, younger Australians perceive less compliance.”

“The virus has not gone away. Without a vaccine or treatment, one of the most effective tools to keep the virus at bay, and stay safe, is to maintain physical distance from others. As social beings, it is understandable that people find it difficult to be physically apart. However, it is the most cautious thing to continue doing as restrictions are eased, and is the most challenging. Being physically apart does not necessarily mean being socially apart.”

The proportion of Australians interviewed who are satisfied with government economic policies to support jobs and keep people at work remained around 65 per cent. However, there was a rise in the proportion expecting the impact of the coronavirus pandemic to last for more than 12 months, jumping to 57 per cent last week up from 46 per cent the week before.

Melbourne Institute lead researcher Professor Guay Lim said: “The Australians we surveyed have revised upwards their perceptions of the likely duration of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on economic activity. This may possibly be a reaction to negative news about huge job losses in the US, and forecasts of deep recessions by the IMF and other organisations.”

The proportion of survey respondents who reported feeling financially stressed (in terms of paying for essential goods and services) has fallen from 28 per cent in the first week of the survey (6-11 April) to 21 per cent last week. The proportion experiencing mental distress (in terms of feeling depressed and anxious most of the time, during the past week) has also fallen from 20 per cent in the first week of the survey to 15 per cent last week.

A further report has also been published this week by the Melbourne Institute on how collective action is required to ensure that the nation returns to, and stays safe in, the new normal.

The survey results are from 4-8 May 2020. Find the full report on the Melbourne Institute’s website.

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