A scientific adviser to the government has warned that public anger over the conduct of Dominic Cummings has encouraged some people to break lockdown rules, raising the risk of a resurgence in coronavirus infections.
Anger over Cummings’ actions and the prime minister’s defence of them had led some to reject the official guidance on containing the virus, amid perceptions that those in power are failing to make the same sacrifices as the public, the adviser said.
“We know that there is understandable public anger over the Dominic Cummings incident and Boris Johnson’s defence of it, and that this anger is the basis of some people now rejecting the guidance on staying at home,” said Prof John Drury, a social psychologist at the University of Sussex.
Speaking in a personal capacity, Drury, who sits on the behavioural science subgroup of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: “The starting point for the sacrifices people made was the assumption that we all have to make the same sacrifices. So to perceive that those in power, who supposedly embody the lockdown strategy, are not doing so is toxic.”
Drury’s intervention came as the row over the prime minister’s senior aide continued to grow after he refused to apologise for breaking lockdown regulations and claimed his actions in driving across the country with his family were justified.
The incident has left some scientific advisers wondering how they can undo the damage to public trust as the country moves into a critical phase of carefully easing restrictions on movement without risking a second wave of infections and further shutdowns. Many researchers see the coming weeks as the most delicate yet, as the official guidance will become more complex and will only work if the public remain onboard.
“Despite the understandable anger, I would urge people to continue to maintain physical distancing and the other regulations, for their families, their neighbours, and their community,” Drury said. “In an emergency, no matter what we think of the incumbent government politically, it’s crucially important that people listen and adhere to the guidance the authorities provide on the public health measures necessary to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. This includes the instructions to physically distance and to stay at home.”
Beyond the concern that some now perceived an “us and them” situation with those in power exempt from the restrictions, Drury warned of a shift away from a sense of shared rules towards one of personal judgments taking precedence.
Another adviser on the same subgroup, Prof Stephen Reicher at the University of St Andrews, said public solidarity had been fundamental to the success of the lockdown so far and would be as crucial in the weeks and months ahead as ministers looked for the safest route to reopening the country without an upsurge in infections.
Speaking in a personal capacity, Reicher said: “What is absolutely undeniable is that the unity, the sense that we were all pulling together for the common good, has been broken. They have driven a wedge between themselves and at least a proportion of the public who feel alienated and feel there’s one law for us and another for them.
“If people are acting out of individual interest, you can have huge difficulties in securing adherence to the advice, because for quite a lot of people, the risks for going out are relatively low. If you’re young, if you’re healthy, there aren’t that many risks. So you might say: well, I’m thinking about myself, I might as well go out. It’s no problem for me.”
Reicher added: “The thing that really concerns me is that Cummings’ defence compounds the problem, because the problem is a lack of an understanding of the importance of thinking and acting in terms of the communal good. It shows that they don’t even understand what the problem is.
“Going forward, our ability to deal with the pandemic depends upon adherence and compliance as much as ever. That needs to be understood. it’s important that people understand that we’re still in the middle of this pandemic. The situation is as dangerous as ever and if we stop being vigilant we are in danger.”