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ANALYSIS: Internal government polling shows sharp shifts in attitudes on COVID-19

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Canadian attitudes about COVID-19 dramatically shifted between the spring and late fall of last year, internal federal government polling shows, and shifted again with the rise of Omicron late in 2021.

Not only that, the issues of greatest concern to Canadians had also shifted significantly just as the Trudeau government was beginning its third term in November with topics like the environment, cost of living and affordable housing rising to the top of mind of many voters and displacing the virus as the top issue in the country.

And there were wide regional variations. For example, the state of the economy was the most-cited issue in Alberta when voters there were asked in mid-November which issue should receive the most attention from the federal government. Meanwhile, Quebecers, in mid-November, were least worried about COVID-19 and most likely to believe the spread of the virus was under control.

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The shifting landscape of Canadian public opinion in the last 10 months when it comes to the issues of most concern to voters not only presents new challenges for policy makers in Ottawa and in provincial capitals, but it may also put in context some of the decisions those policy makers made — or failed to make — prior to the arrival of the Omicron variant in Canada.

Read more: Coronavirus: As Canadians huddled at home, feds found meagre support for green recovery plan (Oct. 18, 2020)

By and large, the number of Canadians who said they were concerned  about the spread of the virus; who were worried about the impact it would have, or who thought it was not under control dropped significantly through 2021 even as other issues like the environment and the economy elbowed their way back as issues of top concerns for most voters, according to weekly polling done by the Privy Council Office (PCO), the government department that supports the work of the prime minister.

Global News has built a database of these weekly internal PCO polls using the federal access to information law. The data collected by the PCO polling program is routinely circulated to the most senior decision makers inside the prime minister’s office as well as to every cabinet minister and deputy minister’s office.

The weekly polling program, which was a creation of the Trudeau government when it took office in 2015, produces data which cabinet and others use to make key decisions such as what to include in a budget or how best to respond to a crisis such as COVID-19.

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Last March, when Canadians were asked which issue should receive the most attention from Ottawa, 44 per cent said “COVID-19”. The next most often-cited issue in the March polls was the economy, at 10 per cent. The federal government’s activities and focus of last spring were consistent with that finding.

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But by early November, just 9.5 per cent said COVID-19 was the number one issue for the federal government. Voters had other top issues — environment was cited as most important by 19 per cent; the economy by 13 per cent and cost of living by 5.1 per cent. Cost of living or inflation was barely on the radar in March with just 1.1 per cent of voters then saying it was their number one issue. The PCO pollster asks this question every week and it is an open-ended question, not multiple choice, which means respondents can say anything they wish.

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The government’s singular focus on COVID-19 last spring — a focus that seemed to match the mood of many voters — had many believing the government was moving in the right direction. But with the more diverse views of voters on the top issue for the country by November, the government, still sorting itself out after a vote which returned yet another minority government, was getting poorer grades.

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In March, 43 per cent of those polled by the PCO said the government was on the right track versus 24 per cent who said it was on the wrong track. But by mid-November, a few weeks after the federal election, 33 per cent said “wrong track” and 32 per cent said “right track” — not the most auspicious beginning for a government that had just won re-election.

Read more: Omicron and living with COVID — Why the new variant might change the timeline

The most recent internal polling obtained by Global News is for the week ending Nov. 14, but sources close to the PCO polling program say that the December data it has shows that the coronavirus has swung back as the top-of-mind issue to the largest number of voters, a swing that coincides, not surprisingly, with the spread of the Omicron variant.

But what has not come back with the spread of Omicron is some of the fear and personal worry about the virus. That trend was one not only detected in the PMO and PCO but also in some provincial capitals, according to background discussions with sources close to premiers.

When Canadians were asked in March if they were worried about the spread of COVID-19, 71 per cent of all respondents said, yes, they were worried but that dropped to 52 per cent by November. And the level of worry depended on the province. In the spring, Albertans were less anxious about the spread of the virus — just 62 per cent then said it was a worry — but by November, Quebecers had become the least anxious, with just 42 per cent there saying they were worried.

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When asked in March if they thought the spread of COVID was under control, 44 per cent of all Canadians said they thought it was but by November that number had risen to 63 per cent. Again, Quebecers were most likely to say it was under control throughout that period: 54 per cent in March; 72 per cent by November.

In March, 58 per cent of Canadians said they worried they or someone in their family would catch the virus, but by November just 41 per cent said the same thing. And once again, the fear was lowest in Quebec, where just 35 per cent there said they were worried they or a family member would catch the bug.

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That declining interest in COVID as a top-of-mind issue and the decline in fear and anxiety of the disease may help explain the decisions in some provincial capitals to focus on new issues — in Alberta, for example, Premier Jason Kenney’s government seemed to renew attention on the economy — or, as with the Quebec and Ontario governments, to fail to take public health precautions in November that their opponents, in January, would seize on as cause for criticism.

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The decisions premiers took in the late fall may simply have reflected some of the attitudes of those in that province who, the federal polling indicates, were adjusting to living with the virus and were interested in other things.

By law, the PCO polling program, paid for with public funds, may not ask voters about their opinions of political parties or their vote intention.

The PCO’s pollster-of-record is Elemental Data Collection Inc. of Ottawa. It holds a one-year contract worth $1.5 million to do the weekly polling on behalf of the PCO.

The raw polling data obtained by Global News does not provide detailed information about the pollster’s methodology or margin of error but it is clear from the documents provided that the poll samples the opinion of 1,000 people each week and that the pollster collects demographic data — language, region, gender, age and so on — in order to to ensure the data is representative of the actual demographic makeup of the country. The data is collected using live-agent telephone calls to land-lines and cellphones.

David Akin is the chief political correspondent for Global News.

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