Public confidence in the government’s ability to deal with the coronavirus pandemic was badly affected by the news Dominic Cummings had seemingly broken lockdown rules, new research shows.
A new study by University College London found that, there was a noticeable ‘Cummings effect’ following a major over the actions of the prime minister’s chief aide.
Boris Johnson has previously said he did not think “anybody in Number 10 has done anything to undermine our messaging”.
But the research, due to be published in The Lancet medical journal, shows a clear decrease in confidence starting on 22 May – when the story initially broke – which continued to fall quickly in the days that followed.
And it showed trust has not recovered in the weeks since then, with the study revealing the row also had an impact on people’s willingness to follow the rules and guidelines from the government.
While there had already been a gradual decrease in the public's adherence to the strict regulations, the decline grew in the weeks after the furore.
The data from the UCL Covid-19 Social Study looked at more than 220,000 survey results between 24 April and 11 June, focusing on those relating to the news Cummings had travelled 270 miles from London to Durham with his wife and child during lockdown.
By comparing the responses from people England to those in Scotland and Wales, which did not show a similar fall, researchers ascertained the drop in confidence was likely a result of the adviser’s actions.
Lead author of the study, Dr Daisy Fancourt, said: “Public trust in the government’s ability to manage the pandemic is crucial as it underpins public attitudes and behaviours at a precarious time for public health.
“Throughout lockdown it has been shown how closely public confidence is related to government announcements on Covid-19, with an initial boost as the lockdown came in, followed by a drop after 10 May as the government announced it would begin to reopen society.
“The data then shows a stabilisation and even a slight increase in public confidence in the fortnight following, but the Cummings events were followed by another sudden decrease."
She added: “Trust in government decisions and actions relating to the management of Covid-19 is a major challenge globally and these data illustrate the negative and lasting consequences that political decisions can have for public trust and the risks to behaviours.”
'Only by continuing this national effort will we defeat coronavirus'
Speaking at the time of the row, Johnson said in a written response to an MP that he is “satisfied that Cummings’ actions were in line with the government’s guidance”.
And a government spokesperson said: “It is thanks to the common sense of the British public that we have passed through the peak and suppressed the virus to low levels, and it is only by continuing to pull together in this national effort that we will defeat coronavirus.
“The government’s guidance remains clear: we all must stay alert, in order to control the virus and save lives.
"That means continuing to observe social distancing, limiting contact with others, washing our hands regularly, and self-isolating if we have symptoms.”
Alain Tolhurst is chief reporter at CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.