Lots of people are unsure what many of the key words and phrases used by experts and politicians discussing Covid-19 actually mean, research shows.

Almost half the population is unclear what “antigen” or “epidemiologist” mean, while two in five admit they would struggle to explain “circuit breaker” or “flatten the curve”.

Significant numbers also could not explain, either confidently or at all, what a “support bubble” is, what “stay alert” means and what someone being “asymptomatic” involves.

The widespread confusion is revealed in a survey by pollsters Savanta ComRes and is based on a representative sample of 2,302 UK adults. It comes despite almost a year of extensive media coverage of the pandemic in which a large new lexicon of words and phrases, that until last March were largely unfamiliar to most, has become common parlance.

Just 20% said they could confidently explain a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, which is used to detect if someone currently has coronavirus. More than double that number – 45% – said they either could not explain it (21%) or could not do so confidently (24%).

Similarly, 49% could not explain scientific terms such as antigen or epidemiologist, 47% said the same about “antibody”, and 43% about “contact tracing”. While 88% had heard of the “R number”, only 42% said they could confidently explain it, compared with 46% who could not.

Even though three new variants, or strains, of the Coronavirus have emerged in recent weeks, 44% still said they could not explain what a variant is or could explain it but not with confidence.

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There is almost as much lack of clarity about key terms that government ministers and their health and scientific advisers have used repeatedly, including at televised Downing Street media briefings.

“Circuit breaker” and “flatten the curve”? Two-fifths (41%) said they would struggle to explain either term. Many said the same about “herd immunity” (39%), “support bubble” (34%), and “stay alert” (29%) – the advice to the public that Boris Johnson was criticised for starting to use last summer instead of “stay at home” when lockdown restrictions eased.

Kate Pogson, head of MHP Health, which commissioned the survey, said: “The findings are very worrying. They tell us that one year on there is still a significant level of question around the meaning of words which have been in our vocabulary since the start of the pandemic.”

Widespread public confusion might also contribute to the spread of misinformation about Covid and undermine efforts to limit its transmission, Pogson added.

Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine and expert in infectious diseases at the University of East Anglia, said: “I can quite appreciate why so many people are so confused about so much Covid terminology.

“Phrases such as ‘flatten the curve’ and ‘support bubble’ are made-up phrases. Will people use a dictionary or the internet to look up what the Department of Health means by them? I doubt it.

“While some of these clinical and scientific terms are well defined, such as ‘epidemiologist’, there are even disagreements among experts as to what some of these terms mean. Given that, it’s not surprising that so many lay people get confused by so many of these words and phrases.”

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