UK public ‘believe coronavirus death toll 100 times higher than it really is’

Responding to the report, experts said such “hysteria” was understandable. Christopher Snowdon, the head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), said it was “no surprise”.

He added: “People often overestimate highly publicised risks while underestimating more common risks. No health risk has had more publicity in recent years than Covid-19. 

“The hysteria is understandable to some extent but, while all the attention is on the 40,000 people who have died with Covid, 600,000 people die in Britain every year without much fanfare. 

“Covid-19 is undoubtedly a nasty disease, and we need to be careful, but it is far less lethal than many people assume and the average age of those who die is 84. There needs to be some perspective.”

Professor Graham Towl, a former Ministry of Justice chief psychologist who specialises in forensic psychology at Durham University, said “salient bias” was responsible for the public overestimating the Covid-19 death rate. 

“It’s like with a child abduction in the news – suddenly parents will hold their children that little bit more closely, even though the actual risk of child abduction has not gone up,” he added. “Coronavirus has been all over the media, and so there’s a salient bias – you can see it more, people are more aware of it and the risks.”

Prof Towl added that it was better that more people were “mindful” of coronavirus and overestimated the risk as opposed to underestimating it.

But Bobby Duffy, professor of public policy and director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, took issue with the study because respondents were not allowed to offer fractions of a percentage. He said it offered a mean average of percentages, as opposed to a median, “which skews the data”.

Prof Duffy said people tend to “overestimate” bad news as a result of “emotional innumeracy” in which “reality becomes based on emotion, rather than facts”. “We’re driven by these stories when assessing risk,” he added.

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