Public trust in the UK government as a source of accurate information about the coronavirus has collapsed in recent weeks, suggesting ministers may struggle to maintain lockdown restrictions in the aftermath of the Dominic Cummings affair.
According to surveys conducted on behalf of the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute by YouGov, less than half of Britons now trust the Westminster government to provide correct information on the pandemic – down from more than two-thirds of the public in mid-April.
“I have never in 10 years of research in this area seen a drop in trust like what we have seen for the UK government in the course of six weeks,” said the institute’s director, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen.
The research was conducted in the last week of May, including the period when Cummings’ apparent flouting of lockdown rules by driving from London to Durham – with a trip to Barnard Castle to check his eyesight – dominated the headlines.
This loss of trust poses a challenge for a Downing Street political operation that has often voiced the belief it can reach the public directly without having to go through established media outlets. It is particularly risky as ministers start to gradually relax lockdown rules and ask the British public to use their common sense to minimise the risk of a second wave of infection.
The institute concluded that the UK government and politicians were now “far more widely seen as a source of concern over false or misleading information” than any other source of information, noting that while the Cummings incident probably influenced this outcome, the public was already losing faith in the information provided by Boris Johnson’s government before that.
There are also signs that people are returning to their pre-pandemic political behaviour. There has been a substantial fall in public trust in the media’s coverage of the coronavirus, with the decline largely driven by voters who identify as rightwing. Levels of trust in individual politicians have fallen, providing increased space for conspiracy theories.
Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.
How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.
Is there evidence of coronavirus coming back in a second wave?
This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.
Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.
Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.
What are experts worried about?
Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.
The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.
In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry right now is that with a vaccine still months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.
“The drops for all three sources [government, media and individual politicians] are large and significant, and much more dramatic than the much smaller changes around other institutions and around trust in ordinary people,” concluded the report’s author.
“This is particularly concerning as researchers have found that distrust leaves some people more vulnerable to conspiracy beliefs, including about coronavirus.”
The increasingly politicised approach to the lockdown – with individuals who identify as rightwing more likely to be demanding an end to restrictions on movement, despite warnings from scientists – is reflected in the data.
Leftwing voters who were previously willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt during the pandemic are increasingly distrustful of their messaging.
However, research found the British public still overwhelmingly believes information provided by health officials and scientists.
This could mean that the large television audiences watching the daily Downing Street press conferences put more weight on the implicit criticism of Cummings from government science advisers than the defence of his behaviour from individual ministers.