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The dangerous legacy of the Cummings affair

Research shows how the adviser’s breach of lockdown rules fatally undermined trust in the government and compliance with public health measures. 

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When I began several weeks ago to quiz scientists about Dominic Cummings’ Durham trip for my Radio 4 programme on how science and policy have interacted during the Covid-19 pandemic, I felt I might be raking over the ashes. Had we finally moved on, as Boris Johnson enjoined us to, from his chief adviser’s unapologetic violation of lockdown rules?

This was not, however, a futile attempt to see justice done after all; I was questioning whether it was purely a “political matter”, as Johnson had somehow persuaded his two chief scientists. I wanted to probe the repercussions for public health – to see whether Cummings’ actions had implications for people’s willingness to stick to the rules.

I hadn’t anticipated that the story would soon be back in the headlines. But here we are. First, research has recently been published showing that Cummings’ behaviour, and particularly the lack of consequences for it, sent public trust in the government plummeting. Now Cummings faces the accusation from several eye-witnesses that he made a second trip after his flight north in late March: he was allegedly seen in the Durham area on 19 April, a week after he had returned to London. He denies this, and the Prime Minister says he has seen evidence that the charge is groundless – but refuses to make it public. The Metropolitan Police have now been asked to investigate, for example by checking car number plate data at the time.

You’d be ill advised to place bets on Cummings being ejected from his position of power, regardless of the outcome. But as I discovered, the stakes are higher. With much of Europe, including the UK, at risk of a resurgence in coronavirus, restrictions on freedoms are already being reintroduced to curb local outbreaks and could return on a national level. Public compliance will be vital. But what moral authority does the British government retain to impose rules when we have witnessed its chief architect of power flouting them, trying to cover it up, and then excusing himself with a story seemingly so ludicrous that it has created a new euphemism: “testing my eyesight”?

Stephen Reicher is a behavioural scientist at the University of St Andrews who has sat on the SPI-B committee that supplies advice on the topic to the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage), the government's the main source of scientific guidance. He was utterly dismayed by Cummings’ behaviour, saying at the time that by supporting him the Prime Minister “has trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust”.

“To the extent that people feel leaders are not of us and for us”, Reicher told me, “it will undermine their leadership position, it will undermine trust and it will undermine influence. There is a large body of research making that point.” After the Cummings affair, he says, “the concern is that government and politicians were being seen as ‘them’ and that would be corrosive of their influence.”

This view is supported by the work of a team led by behavioural scientist Daisy Fancourt of University College London, published in the Lancet on 6 August, which looked at the behavioural consequences of the Cummings affair. “Trust is related to people's willingness to follow rules and guidelines, both generally and during the Covid-19 pandemic, which is fundamental to the control of infection and mortality”, the researchers noted. The idea that compliance with laws relies on public trust in the lawmakers is well established in behavioural science.

“What happens in a shared crisis is the development of a shared sense of identity, a concern for others and support for others – in other words collective resilience,” Reicher says. It was this collectivity that always made the notion of “lockdown fatigue” – a concern floated by the chief medical officer Chris Whitty in early March as reason for not going into lockdown too soon – unlikely. People did not, after all, grow tired of observing the rules after a few weeks. But that compliance depended on a sense of shared responsibility and trust in those making the rules. 

“When you’re communicating with a view to encouraging behavioural change in response to an unfamiliar threat such as Covid-19,” says Julia Pearce, a social psychologist at King’s College London who advises the Cabinet Office on behavioural issues in public health emergencies, “one of the key elements, considered the primary route to cooperation, is trust in the people who are communicating the message.”

“These key science and health behavioural messages were being communicated by the Prime Minister with the chief scientific adviser [Patrick Vallance] and chief medical officer,” she says. But, she adds, “you then had a very high-profile senior political adviser take actions that contravened the guidance, and so you have a situation where you’re putting your scientists in an uncomfortable situation [when] trying to put out a consistent message.”

***

Quite how uncomfortable became apparent at the Covid-19 daily press briefing attended by Whitty and Vallance, with Johnson, three days after Cummings’ “rose garden” media interview on 25 May. Inevitably, they faced questions on the matter.

Although the first of these (from the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg) was directed partly at the two chief scientists, Johnson refused to let them answer, calling it “an unfair and unnecessary attempt to ask a political question.” But when ITV’s Robert Peston persisted, questioning whether this was indeed simply “political”, the scientists’ response was abject. “I can assure you that the desire not to get pulled into politics is far stronger on the part of Sir Patrick and me than it is in the Prime Minister,” said Whitty. Vallance concurred: “I’m a civil servant, I’m politically neutral, I don’t want to get involved in politics at all.”

Peston was right, though: the matter was obviously not just political. At the beginning of the crisis, public trust in the government’s message about the necessary behavioural response, such as the need for social distancing, “was high across the political spectrum”, says Pearce. But she told me that “recent research suggests that public confidence in the government’s handling fell” after the Cummings affair.

Reicher agrees: “Trust figures fall calamitously at that point.” A survey of unity and division during lockdown by the think tank British Future, published in July, showed that Cummings’ actions were deplored across the political spectrum. “Participants became notably angrier when describing politicians in the later discussion groups and in their diary entries”, says the report.

Those conclusions have now been made more quantitative by the study by Fancourt and colleagues, which found that from 22 May (when the news broke) there was a clear decrease in confidence in the government’s ability to handle the crisis. The steepest decline coincided with Cummings’ televised statement three days later. In Scotland and Wales there was no such sudden drop in trust of those regions’ own devolved administrations. At the time the paper was written, about a month after the events, the researchers said that “there has been no recovery in confidence in the government.”

The scientists seem to have got off lightly in the overall judgements about the UK’s handling of the pandemic. A survey conducted by researchers at King’s College in conjunction with Ipsos MORI shows that, of the 43 per cent of people who feel it has been bad (compared to 36 per cent who don’t), 65 to 70 per cent put the blame on the Prime Minister or the government. Pearce says that polling by the King’s College Policy Institute showed that about half of the participants said their trust in scientists had actually increased over the course of the crisis.

But some think that the silence on the matter from Whitty and Vallance has damaged their credibility. Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, considers the relationship between government and the chief scientists to have been “strangely collusive”. The scientists, he says, “were acting together with the politicians to support the political response to the outbreak".

David King, who was chief scientific adviser to Tony Blair’s government during the foot-and-mouth outbreak among cattle in 2001, stresses that the role of the chief scientists is a delicate one. As civil servants, they must “manage the trust of the prime minister and the cabinet” – but must also “gain the trust of the public”. 

“In my view it’s critically important that you are seen to be independent,” King says. His concerns about that independence of the scientific advice during the pandemic led him to establish an unofficial advisory group of experts, called Independent Sage, in early May.

The deputy chief medical adviser Jonathan Van-Tam was not so easily cowed when he faced a question on Cummings in a later press briefing. “In my opinion, the rules are clear and they have always been clear”, he replied. “They are for the benefit of all, and they apply to all.” Whether this had anything to do with Van-Tam’s absence at subsequent press briefings can only be a matter of speculation – as can the reasons why the chief nurse Ruth May was dropped from a press briefing on 1 June after she made it clear during a rehearsal earlier that day that she would not keep silent on Cummings.

As well as the question of whether the independence of the scientists was compromised by the Cummings affair, we have to ask whether it did actually impact people’s willingness to abide by the rules. “In a pandemic, if you don’t make it clear how dangerous it is to do certain things,” says Reicher (such as driving 260 miles with suspected Covid-19 symptoms), “they won’t avoid those things”.

But he thinks the behavioural consequences may be complex. There is some evidence, he says, to suggest that “Cummings served as a counter-example of what you should not do, and people who were angry at what he did were more likely to observe lockdown.” The real cost comes later, he says, citing evidence that people’s willingness to give contact information for test-and-trace measures – a crucial component for containment in the coming months – “is less likely when they don't trust the government.”

Fancourt’s work, however, does suggest some immediate behavioural consequences too. “There had already been a gradual decrease in public adherence to guidelines before the publicity about Cummings' actions on 22 May, but the difference in this decline between England and Wales and Scotland grew in the three weeks following [22 May to 11 June, 2020],” the researchers report. It was from that time that we began to see packed beaches and crowded bars.

In the event, the government seemed in almost indecent haste to relax the lockdown restrictions in the wake of the Cummings revelation, which one could not help but suspect of being more a matter of relieving a public sense of injustice than a carefully considered strategy. For the first time, these choices seemed to depart from the advice of the scientists – now ministers were no longer claiming to be “following the science”, but merely listening to it. 

While public fury at Cummings seems not yet to have subsided, Reicher is clear where the responsibility ultimately lies. “Remember,” he says, “this is not the Cummings effect. It is the Johnson effect. Had the Prime Minister sacked him, this would not have destroyed trust. But the moment he stood up and justified Cummings’ actions, it made it clear there was one law for them and one for us.”

Philip Ball’s most recent book is “How To Grow A Human” (William Collins)

"Led by the science" will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm on Tuesday 11 August