So where did it all go wrong?

Following Boris Johnson’s press conference on Sunday 24 May, at which he made it clear he had no intention of dismissing his main advisor Dominic Cummings, Professor Stephen Reicher had this to say on Twitter:

“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.
It is very hard to provide scientific advice to a government which doesn’t want to listen to science. I hope, however, that the public will read our papers (publicly available at–emergencies-sage-coronavirus-covid-19-response) and continue to make up for this bad government with their own good sense.”

These are strong words and with them the finger of blame for subsequent loss of public trust is pointed firmly in the directions of Messrs Johnson and Cummings.

This is, however, a highly incomplete account of things and the question that I want to raise is this: how was it that a massively important public policy could come crashing to the ground in consequence of events that, in and of themselves, appear minor and quotidian (the decisions made in one family to mitigate risks to a child and the decision made by a boss not to dispense with a key aid on account of the family decisions that were made)?

The general answer is straightforward: it’s the context, stupid. The same conduct in different contexts produces different effects. Shouting fire outside a burning building is one thing, shouting fire in a crowded theatre for the fun of it is another matter altogether. We are familiar with that sort of point. It is the context of the quotidian conduct that makes it significant.

That recognised, the next question is: what was it about this context that produced this scale of effect, this vulnerability to a seemingly small event? The answer can’t only be that one of the protagonists in the tale was Prime Minister. Heads of government are routinely surrounded by people who have or might have breached laws or regulations in minor ways. Receiving a fine for doing 36mph in a 30mph zone is not usually career threatening, although doing 70mph might be (because reckless and, by and of itself, causing much higher hazards to the public).

Similarly, whilst Dominic Cummings has many enemies in politics, attempts by them alone to make a mountain out of a mole hill cannot explain the kinds of public reactions observed. Most people have at some time or other infringed laws and regulations themselves, and they know it. That typically serves as a constraining factor on anger at others for similar, minor transgressions they think might have occurred.

The search for a sufficient cause therefore leads quickly on to consideration of another, obviously relevant contextual factor, the policy itself and the advice on which it was based.

The Government has claimed throughout that it has followed or been guided by ‘the science’. That is something of a nonsense statement: ‘science’ has no voice, let alone a single voice. Nevertheless, it is open to the generous interpretation that it means “following or being guided by advice from people who call themselves and each other ‘scientists’”.

Stephen Reicher’s Tweet is itself evidence that the Government did, in fact, follow the cited advice, right up to the moment that, in his view, it was trashed: it would be hard to trash something that wasn’t there.

The advice set out by Reicher is odd in that it doesn’t look at all like the kind of advice that governments would seek or expect from scientists. It looks much more like the advice of public relations/communications advisors. Two of the list’s five elements particularly struck my eye: “Ensure equity, so everyone is treated the same” and “Make clear ‘we are all in it together’”.

Take ‘equity’ first. There is an immediate elision from a general notion of fairness to an interpretation based on everyone being treated the same. It’s understandable that healthcare professionals might go to that interpretation of equity in their own trades, because the NHS is a distributor of benefits to the public in the form of the services it provides (and it does, in a literal sense, treat people). What that misses though is that the relevant context is not one where the issues concern the distribution of benefits. Rather, the issues raised are to do with the distribution of burdens among the population, and that is a very different kettle of fish.

That it is not necessarily at all equitable to treat everyone the same when it comes to the allocations of burdens seems to be pretty much a consensus position across major moral and political philosophies. St Luke wrote: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.”  Karl Marx wrote: “From each according to their ability …”. There is no sense of ‘treating everyone the same’ in either of those sentiments. Capacities and abilities vary, and both writers link (normatively expected) behaviours to capacities/abilities. How many of us would be convinced that replacing a progressive income tax with a uniform poll tax was equitable because “everyone is treated the same”? Not many I expect.

The fact is that the advice and its implementation have placed disproportionately heavy burdens on very many British households, and that alone makes it bad advice, whether it has any claim to being based on ‘science’ or not. That it was followed by the Government was a poor judgment. Next time ministers would do better to follow the advice of the physicist Richard Feynman (given to teachers of science in schools): “When someone says, ‘Science teaches such and such,’ he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn’t teach anything; experience teaches it. If they say to you, ‘Science has shown such and such,’ you might ask, ‘How does science show it? How did the scientists find out? How? What? Where?’”

Now consider the final piece of advice in the Reicher list: “Make clear ‘we are all in this together’”. It has been repeated multiple times by the Prime Minister, perhaps because of the Churchillian ring to it. Its provenance is not Churchill, however, and part of it is easily discoverable by virtue of the existence of an online book titled Together Apart, co-authored by Stephen Reicher. The book, which is addressed at Covid-19 issues, rests on and advocates a body of thought in social psychology known as Social Identity Theory.

The mission of the behaviourists seems to have been to render oppressive and inequitable measures more acceptable (and hence likely more readily enforceable) by modifying the social behaviour of an entire nation. The means to this – and this is where Social Identity Theory comes in – was an attempted creation of a whole-nation ‘we all’ identity, or at least the creation of the belief on the part of each individual that others in her/his social networks would identify as ‘we all’ in this way, opening up the possibility of her/him being socially sanctioned by those others for non-compliance.

Had ‘we are all in this together’ simply been expressed as a sentiment in a speech or two by Boris Johnson, it would have been little more than a politician’s encouraging rhetoric, but the advice and the policy that followed it was much more than that. It was something to be made clear and emphasised on a repeated basis, underpinned by rules that heavily stressed uniformity in behaviour, irrespective of individual circumstances. If, in consequence of the particularities of individual circumstances, there was a conflict between the prescriptive rules and the purposes of the laws (e.g. mitigate the harms caused by an virus), the message was to resolve the conflict by following the letter of the rules, not their purposes (their ‘spirit’).

It was, at bottom, a giant experiment in identity politics based on social theorising, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, and there are a few things we know from experiences with such exercises, including: (a) grand social theories are usually wrong and (b) when they are discovered to have been wrong, it is usually also discovered that they themselves have caused great harms.

So what can be learned from the experience? My view is that the most important lesson is that the approach was one more manifestation of a characteristic that has become embedded in British policymaking over the past ten to fifteen years or so: a cavalier neglect of considerations of robustness in the design and development of policy strategies.

Non robustness in a strategy means that, whilst the policy might work in achieving desired outcomes in particular contexts/circumstances, relatively modest changes in context/circumstances can comprehensively unravel it. It means that desired outcomes are at high risk from unfolding events. It is like a win-only bet on the Grand National.

Early on in the contagion the advice of the behaviourists did appear to come with warnings that the Lockdown option could likely only be sustained for a short period, and those warnings can be read as an appropriate recognition of the option’s fragility. But then came an unexpected finding: compliance with the rules turned out to be more comprehensive than anticipated. A large slice of the public was apparently more willing to ‘stick to the prescriptive rules’ than was expected, and less willing than usual to give weight in determining their behaviours to questions concerning the purposes of the rules and their effectiveness in promoting those purposes.

Rather than taking ‘excess compliance’ as a sign that the rules could be loosened by, for example, seeking to remove some of their most egregious injustices, advice and policy ploughed on. Consummate compliance with the rules morphed from being something that would assist achievement of the overarching aim of impeding the spread of a virus toward being a signifier of a ‘we all’ identity, an identity designed to be universal.

As implied by remarks above we have seen the non-robustness problem before in UK public policies, on multiple occasions now. Major examples include: the Electricity Market Reform (EMR) programme; encouragement of fragile supply chains; and hollowing out of frontline healthcare capacity. The stand-out example though was the financial crash of 2008, when an inbuilt tension between (a) policy-induced incentives to engage in activities that could be expected to increase systemic risk (risk of financial contagion) and (b) the regulatory capacity to contain the eventuation of such risks finally snapped. The problem is well encapsulated by the title of a book on those events and the policies that contributed to them: Fragile by Design.

In short, Covid-19 policy has been fragile by design. The ‘scientific’ advice summarised in Professor Reicher’s tweet would have been better ‘trashed’ at the outset.

Author: gypoliticaleconomyblog

Lifetime student of political economy, retired academic and regulator.

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