Increased home working and fewer opportunities to socialise during the coronavirus pandemic is threatening to make society less tolerant of diversity, a report warns.
Reduced access to workplaces, leisure centres and other communal facilities is likely to make it much harder to form friendships that break down prejudices, the Woolf Institute said.
Without alternative opportunities for social mixing, its researchers believe this will lead directly to an increase in prejudice.
The research centre, based in Cambridge, is launching the results of a two-year study, which saw 11,701 adults surveyed about their attitudes towards diversity in England and Wales.
The report, How We Get Along, suggests that there is an emerging consensus that diversity is a positive thing, but that change has occurred too quickly.
More than half (53%) agree that ethnic diversity is good for society, 46% believe the same of migrants and 41% believe the same of religious diversity.
However, 60% of respondents said they feel the number of migrants in Britain has risen too quickly over the past decade, half believe ethnic diversity has increased too quickly and 43% believe the same of religious diversity.
The findings also suggests that negative beliefs about religions such as Islam continue to be widely held.
Religious prejudice, particularly towards Muslims, is the “final frontier” for diversity as people still appear willing to express negative attitudes.
The report authors are concerned that Covid-19 will make people become less tolerant, as it reduces their opportunities to make friends outside of their ethnic, religious or national groups.
Workplaces provide opportunities to create “shared goals, break down stereotypes and foster positive attitudes”, with the report finding that those without work are twice as likely to have no friends outside their own ethnicity, nationality and religion.
Dr Ed Kessler, founder director of the Woolf Institute, said: “As people are forced to work from home during Covid, there is a risk that they go back into isolated silos.
“Creating new opportunities for friendships should be a key ingredient of public policy.”
While overall trends are positive, attitudes towards religious diversity were markedly less so, suggesting religion is a “red line” for many people in England and Wales.
The polling found less than half (44%) of people would be comfortable with a close relative marrying a Muslim.
This compares to around seven in 10 respondents feeling comfortable with a loved one marrying an Asian or black person.
However, the data also suggest that a majority of Muslims had the same negative marriage attitudes towards Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Sikh people and those of no faith.
Dr Hargreaves said: “The good news is that there is a strong consensus in our findings that diversity is good for our country, whether we look at ethnicity, migration or religion. It is, however, also clear that, of these three forms of diversity, acceptance of religious diversity lags significantly behind.
“Being Muslim, in particular, appears to remain a “trigger” for prejudice, making religion a ‘final frontier’ for prejudice in England and Wales.”
Overall, women, younger people, Remain, Labour and Liberal Democrat voters appear to be more positive towards ethnic and religious diversity in Britain.
People living in more ethnically and religiously diverse communities were more likely to hold negative attitudes.
Remain, Labour and Liberal Democrat voters showed more positive attitudes towards migrants in Britain.
Attitudes towards migrants were more negative everywhere outside of London except for the south east, which the authors said may be a “regrettable bad news story from the provinces” for multicultural Londoners.
People in the North West were the least likely to have ethnically diverse friendships, and were 54% more likely than Londoners to only have friends from the same ethnic background.
Those in the North East were the least likely to have any non-British friends, and were two-and-a-half times as likely as Londoners to only be friends with British people.
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