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expert comment on public trust in government and compliance and public health

In light of of news reports about a Downing Street Party in May 2020, here is a comment from Dr Simon Williams on public trust in government, compliance and public health.


Dr Simon Williams, Senior Lecturer in People and Organisation, Swansea University, said:

“The latest alleged Downing Street party adds to the growing list of instances where some high-profile members of government may have broken the very rules they had set.

“The negative impact that controversies like the current alleged Downing Street garden party can have on public trust in government cannot be understated. Research1 has shown that trust is one of the most important predictors of whether people follow covid rules and guidance.  May 2020, when the alleged Number 10 garden party took place, is the same month of the Dominic Cummings Barnard Castle debacle – the fallout of which had a significant impact on public trust in government, to the extent that it was given its own name – the ‘Cummings Effect’2.

“When allegations of last year’s Downing Street Christmas parties broke, a survey 3 found that one-in-ten people said they wouldn’t follow any new household mixing rules this year, precisely because some in government hadn’t followed their own rules last year.  

“And so, past instances rule-breaking by those in power can definitely have an impact on current behaviours.

“In our research4, last year, we found that one key reason for the loss of trust – which was a major factor in non-adherence to guidance, was the well-publicised instances in which politicians were seen to be subjectively interpreting the rules for their own benefit.  This rule-interpretation characterised the Barnard Castle affair, but it appears as though the current alleged garden party, is more of what we term blatant rule violation – in this case, hosting a sizeable gathering when at the time rules permitted only meeting one other person outside your household outside.

“Of course, at the moment, there are, in England, relatively few formal COVID-19 rules in place.  However, people are still being urged to be cautious.  For example, we are being told we may choose to ‘limit the close contact’ we have with people we do not usually live with5.

“Also, we know that booster uptake was remarkably high over the festive period, but has since slowed.  And so it is important that uptake is continued – and again one large study found that a big predictor of willingness to accept vaccines was trust in government6!

“It is worth pointing out that compliance with rules and guidance has been mostly high for the vast majority throughout the pandemic.  The latest fall-out might be used by some as justification for being less cautious (‘if they weren’t cautious last May, why should I now?’), particularly at a time when, in my view, premature messages of ‘learning to live with Covid’ and of Omicron as a ‘milder’ variant, are starting to take root, leading to a bit of what we might call ‘variant fatigue’ (or ‘risk habituation’ – where people have psychologically ‘gotten used to’ the threat posed by Covid and its new variants, including Omicron).  However, most people will likely still continue to do what they have been doing, including various COVID-19 protective behaviours like wearing face masks and voluntary lateral flow testing – which people have doing more of during December and into January.  But, as more and more controversies emerge, we can say this is in-spite of, not because of, good behavioural role-modelling by some in power.

“We must not forget that we are still in the pandemic, but it is worth reflecting on the bigger, and longer-term question, about what the pandemic legacy is on matters of trust.  As a social scientist, one big concern of mine, is how much the pandemic has revealed – and perhaps exacerbated – the potentially harmful effects of misinformation on society.  For example, many vulnerable people have died globally as a result of their decision to not get vaccinated because of the misinformation circulating on social media about vaccine safety and efficacy.  Similarly, one wonders whether the pandemic will have an impact on trust in government, that extends beyond when the virus is finally considered endemic in the UK.

“As of mid-December 2021, the UK had the lowest percentage of people who felt that their government was handling the pandemic well (only one-in-three), according to a Yougov poll7.  

“History will attest to which countries handled the pandemic ‘the best’, but regardless of the specific measures used, and whether rules or guidance predominates, trust is a key ingredient to public health – people are less likely follow advice on what to eat or drink, what lifestyles to adopt, and whether to get vaccinated, if the people who are giving the advice are deemed untrustworthy – especially if the right supports are also not being put in place.”


1 What predicts adherence to COVID-19 government guidelines? Longitudinal analyses of 51,000 UK adults’ by Liam Wright et al. as a preprint

2 ‘The Cummings effect: politics, trust, and behaviours during the COVID-19 pandemic’ by Daisy Fancourt et al. published in The Lancet

3 YouGov poll ‘One in ten would not follow new household mixing rules specifically because of No 10 parties’

4  ‘Public perceptions of non-adherence to pandemic protection measures by self and others: A study of COVID-19 in the United Kingdom’ by Simon Williams et al. published in PLOS ONE

5 Government Guidance from ‘Coronavirus: how to stay safe and help prevent the spread’

6 ‘Public acceptance of COVID-19 vaccines: cross-national evidence on levels and individual-level predictors using observational data’ by Marie Fly Lundholt et al. published in BMJ Open

7  YouGov poll ‘COVID-19: government handling and confidence in health authorities’



All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink:



Declared interests

None received.

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