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COVID-19 outstrips Brexit by a mile

On the 23rd of June 2016, the British people voted narrowly to leave the EU – and for the following four years the media talked of little else. Until February of last year of course, when COVID-19 started to dominate the news agenda, which it has done ever since.

Although the United Kingdom left the European Union on 31 January 2020, it was only at 23:00 GMT on the 31st of December 2020 that it left the transitional arrangements that effectively bound it to the EU. Boris’ new post-Brexit trade agreement kicked in – governing the new relationship between the EU and UK indefinitely. A truly historic moment that will shape our country for decades to come. But did the media take notice?

The answer is: not really. Our HS Insights team has looked at all media coverage of Brexit and COVID-19 since the beginning of January 2021. Whilst I don’t think anyone will be surprised that COVID-19 has dwarfed coverage of Brexit, it may surprise some to see how utterly it dominates.

During the last 25 days, COVID-19 has been mentioned ten times more than Brexit at 20,000 times a day on average. Not only has Brexit been submerged as a topic, but coverage on it has been unremittingly negative, with 95% focused on the risks and only 5% on the opportunities. The Daily Express has topped traditional media by volume of coverage on Brexit, but even here it has devoted four times as much space to COVID-19. At the EU-bashing Mail publications, COVID-19 has been mentioned more than 175,000 times as opposed to only 8,600 for Brexit. And whilst Brexit is now finally done, it may surprise that feelings on it are only getting stronger with ‘sadness’, ‘fear’ and ‘anger’ all rising steeply in terms of association with the subject during January 2021.

So, what were the front pages looking like as we entered our new relationship with the EU on that New Year’s Eve? The Daily Mail was jubilant at “a new dawn for Britain.” On the other side of the Brexit debate, The Guardian splashed with “Schools chaos as 21m more people in England face toughest Covid curbs.” Whilst the Express reliably celebrated that “Britain [was] FINALLY free from the EU” it also found room for vaccine reporting “Grim but light at end of the tunnel”. Let’s hope they are right!

By Andrew Hayes

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