“As one of those involved in SPI-B, the Government advisory group on behavioural science, I can say that in a few short minutes tonight, Boris Johnson has trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control COVID-19.”
“Be open and honest, we said. Trashed. Respect the public, we said. Trashed. Ensure equity, so everyone is treated the same, we said. Trashed. Be consistent we said. Trashed. Make clear ‘we are all in it together’. Trashed.”
These were the words tweeted by Stephen Reicher, professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews and member of SPI-B, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours, a body that directly advises the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). His views have been echoed by other SPI-B members, Prof Robert West and Prof Susan Michie. Prof Reicher wrote this in response to the daily Downing St press briefing in which Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that his advisor, Dominic Cummings, acted “reasonably and legally” when making a 270-mile journey from his home in London to his parents in Durham.
Throughout this pandemic, Prof Reicher has expressed the need for clarity and precision when communicating lockdown measures in order to maximise compliance. Prof Reicher has stressed the need for openness and, made more significant by the behaviour of Cummings, equity. In a comment for The Times, he stated that “The best way to break trust in any leadership is to have a sense of … there’s one rule for them.” In a tweet he compared it to Greek drama with hubris toppling the king. The metaphor actualised as “such incompetence and turmoil will bring the people down as well.”
Earlier in the crisis, when the Westminster government altered their slogan from “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” to “Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives”, Prof Reicher tweeted: “So the captain has decided to steer the ship directly onto the rocks. God help us all.” In The Times podcast, Stories of our Times, Prof Reicher noted that his register came about because of the medium of Twitter. In the interview he explained that the government’s shift in message was done in an unhelpful manner. He also stated that he personally felt that “we locked down too late”. He notes that the fear of diminishing enthusiasm and psychological fatigue expressed by the government lacked a scientific basis. The introduction of lockdown was instead led by public pressure. This is in stark contrast to the public outcry at Cummings which the government have failed to mollify.
Prof Reicher draws upon research with fellow social psychologist Prof John Drury. This focused on behaviour during times of crisis and panic, including the 7/7 bombings on the London transport network, with the research suggesting that instead of resorting to selfish behaviour, we act with a shared identity and provide mutual assistance. When discussing the lockdown measures with The Times, he stated that “people are observing lockdown because it is for the good of the community.”
Drawing upon a sense of identity is something Prof Reicher has praised Holyrood for. Their messaging, which appeals to a sense of community, evokes the idea that individuals are adhering to the rules in order to protect one another.
Behavioural science has been drawn upon due to the sensitivity of compliance in preventing the spread of a COVID-19. The findings of SPI-B were originally redacted by the government, something Reicher criticised as “Stalinist” and detrimental to trust. Chief Scientific Officer Sir Patrick Vallance and No. 10 decided that these redactions were detrimental to transparency.
Issues of trust and equity have come to the fore with regards to Mr Cummings. On 25 February, early in the UK’s response, SPI-B suggested the government “promote a sense of collectivism”, this included social norms in order to lead to self-policing. A “we are all in this together response”.
This morning, Prof Reicher appeared on Good Morning Britain and suggested that the Cummings debacle has “fatally undermined” the government. He noted that a survey found 44% of Britons were struggling due to Lockdown, despite this people maintained lockdown for the common good.
In no uncertain words he stated that “because of these actions, because of undermining trust in the government, because of undermining adherence to the rules that we all need to follow, people are going to die.”