How Dominic Cummings could ruin the UK’s coronavirus response

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Anger over senior government adviser Dominic Cummings’s behaviour under lockdown may have consequences for the public’s willingness to adhere to government guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic, psychologists warn. Several members of the SPI-B subcommittee of Sage, which provides advice on behavioural science, say the handling of the Cummings saga could undermine trust in the government’s leadership and lead to more people breaking rules aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus responsible for Covid-19.
“If you lose trust, it undermines adherence, and if people stop adhering to the restrictions that we need to put in place to deal with the pandemic, then inevitably infections will increase, and inevitably that will lead to more fatalities,” says Stephen Reicher, a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews and a member of SPI-B.


On Monday, Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, appeared in a televised press conference to explain reports that he had driven from London to Durham with his family while under the government’s “Stay at Home” guidance. Cummings also gave an explanation for a separate trip from Durham to Barnard Castle, and insisted he had not broken lockdown rules. Prime minister Boris Johnson has defended Cummings’ actions, amid calls for the adviser to resign.
Regardless of the details of what exactly Cummings did or didn’t do, says Reicher, the impact is clear. “We can argue till the cows come home about what he actually did,” he says. “What is a stone-cold hard fact is in the impact it has had.” A survey by YouGov after Cummings’ press conference found that 71 per cent of respondents thought Cummings’s trip to Durham broke lockdown rules and 59 per cent thought he should resign. Seventy per cent thought it would make it harder for the government to get future lockdown messaging across to the public.
The main concern scientists have is that the incident may make people less willing to adhere to the rules themselves as it risks sending the message that people are able to “interpret” the rules for individual convenience over collective good. “Obviously the fear is people are less adherent to the rules, if they’re less adherent to the rules, the virus transmits more rapidly, R could then tip back over 1 and we’re back into an escalating pandemic, with avoidable illness and suffering and avoidable deaths,” says Susan Michie, a professor of health psychology at University College London and also a member of SPI-B. The R number describes the rate of transmission of the virus; if it is higher than one, this means the number of coronavirus cases is increasing exponentially.
The reason for this is perceived unfairness and lack of a sense of solidarity. Reicher explains that there are two main approaches to why people obey authorities: instrumental compliance, which means you abide by a rule because otherwise you will be punished; and normative compliance, which means you obey a rule because it is considered the right thing to do. The second, he says, is more powerful and works by creating a sense of community. But if people believe that leaders are not doing what they tell others to do, this sense of community can break down. “The notion of ‘a law for them and a law for us’ is about the clearest way that you can violate that bond of common identity and that bond of trust between the public and the authorities,” Reicher says.


In a commentary paper for the British Medical Journal earlier this month, members of SPI-B including Reicher and Michie wrote that messaging around “standing together” was an important principle for promoting adherence to social distancing measures. “Messaging will be undermined where policies are perceived as unequitable or socially divisive,” they wrote.
Reicher is concerned that the response to the Cummings incident could lead to a “toxic spiral”, where those who are already inclined to break lockdown rules are more encouraged to do so, which then sets a new norm whereby others see more people breaking restrictions and so are themselves inclined to do so.
Michie thinks that the decision to let Cummings address the public via a press conference was also counterproductive. “A lot of the public anger was because of exceptionalism – because of making an exception for this one individual,” she says. “To be given a slot on television, which is akin to the sort of slot that the prime minister would take, and to be given a Downing Street venue to do it in, really seemed to be repeating the same mistake of ‘one rule for them and one rule for him.’”

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Keeping public trust will be particularly important in the future, as the government moves to loosen some lockdown restrictions and rely more on contact tracing to prevent coronavirus from spreading. Contact tracing requires people to talk about where they’ve been and who they’ve been with, and to comply with rules around self-isolating if they may have been in contact with someone who has the virus. If they do not adhere to any one of these steps, this could undermine contact tracing efforts and make them less effective, allowing the virus to spread. Similarly, a contact-tracing app will only work insofar as people download and use it in high numbers – and this in turn requires people to have confidence that the system works and trust it with their personal information.
Rebuilding trust, says Michie, will require open, honest communication. The government should listen to and engage with communities as it continues to consider changing lockdown restrictions, and should focus on clear messaging and fairness in the rules. Downing Street did not respond to a request for comment.
Michie and Reicher both praise the public’s response to the pandemic. Michie says that many people started to stay at home and close their businesses even before the government brought in lockdown measures. “What I hope is the British public can provide the kinds of responsibility that they showed before the lockdown in terms of converting their moral outrage into adherence to the guidance,” she says. “Even more so, I hope it’ll harden their resolve.”
Reicher says he hopes people will use the furore around the Cummings story as an example of what people should not do, rather than as an excuse to bend lockdown rules. “I would say if I had to put out what the slogan should be today, it is: We are not Dominic Cummings.”
Vicki Turk is WIRED’s features editor. She tweets from @VickiTurk
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