Trust: the missing ingredient in our pandemic response

Published by The i paper (14th September, 2020)

Boris Johnson hailed ‘a new dawn’ for Britain after winning an election based on the slogan that he would get Brexit done. His success was rooted on the withdrawal agreement that he agreed with Brussels and then sold to voters as an ‘oven-ready’ deal. The prime minister rushed it into the statute book, demanding unquestioning loyalty from his party, before we formally left the European Union earlier this year.

Yet now, just a few months later, he wants to rip apart this treaty agreed with our closest allies while minister freely admit they will break international law. It is horrific to see a Conservative government so contemptuous about compliance with the law and so causal about our global standing. This approach demeans Britain and defiles any Tory politician who supports it as their party slides further down the populist path taken by their conservative cousins in the United States. Now we learn that Johnson also seeks to opt out of human rights laws.

This is, sadly, all too typical of a government that displays breathtaking ineptitude then lashes out like a frustrated teenager at any person, law or institution that it can blame for its own dismal failures. Labour leader Keir Starmer is right to say that Johnson should stop banging on about Brexit and focus on fighting the pandemic. It is risible to hear ministers tell citizens to follow the latest rules enforcing unprecedented peacetime restrictions, then listen to them squirming a few minutes later as they try to justify breaking international law.

Yet these two very different issues – the torturous saga of Brexit and Britain’s terrible response to coronavirus – are more entwined than you might think. The thread that lies through them – as with much else in public and private life – is one of trust.

This was brought home to me when I visited Sweden to investigate its pandemic response, wrongly held up by admirers and detractors alike as libertarian resistance to lockdown. In reality, it is based on something more sophisticated: the desire for a sustainable, long-term approach that can be embraced by their citizens. Schools and shops stayed open but social interactions were slashed, while the messaging stayed clear and consistent in a state that, like any strong democracy, revolves around trust of both experts and ordinary people. Sweden has made major mistakes, especially in the care sector. And who knows what lies ahead with this strange virus?

Yet right now the new case numbers are falling, allowing it to retain a semblance of normality and lift the social gathering bar to 500 people. What contrast with Britain where our government has introduced tight new restrictions on socialising in response to surging infections. Ministers have switched to pushing a new ‘rule of six’, which reflects how they lost control of their communication with endless flip-flops and mixed messaging that left people utterly confused – inflamed, of course, by the arrogant behaviour of their chief strategist.

These are challenging times for every nation. Yet as I saw in Sweden and in The Netherlands, the response to crisis is simpler when a society remains gelled by trust. It is Britain’s misfortune that this pandemic struck a place divided so badly by Brexit, which led to installation of a populist government.

We see the same tragedy in the United States, where similar forces led to election of an even more appalling administration. Both countries have ended up with bombastic, insecure and self-obsessed leaders who are out of depth faced with the complexities of confronting a new disease. Their response is to lash out at critics, lie repeatedly and brag about being world-beating despite all evidence to the contrary. Then they resort to the tactic that won them power: inflaming divisions, despite the unfolding catastrophe.

Brexit is a symbol, not root cause, of this problem. Even at the start of this century, almost twice as many Swedes as Americans or Britons agreed with the statement that ‘most people can be trusted.’ But these issues have worsened as trust in our institutions was corroded, faith in democracy withered, social media grew stronger and partisanship spiralled. In the US – where almost four in ten Republican voters believe their previous president Barack Obama was born abroad – pollsters found people no longer believe other citizens can make competent political choices.

No wonder face masks end up a divisive issue when gun-toting militias stalk the streets and there is serious debate whether the president will respect an election result. Yet even in Britain, a think tank study last week suggested there are deep tensions in our fractured society over tackling the pandemic as issues over masks and home working become embroiled in wider culture wars.

Forget all that optimistic early talk of communities coming together, even if this did reflect the generous spirit of most human beings. The Demos polling found we are more divided on issues around lockdown and face masks than on Brexit. And looming ahead of us lies a difficult winter of fighting this cruel virus, while dark economic storm clouds gather in a world seeing inequalities intensified by pandemic.

Populism is a divisive style of politics that pitches itself against supposed elites and picks endless battles with foes who can be portrayed as enemies of decent folk. It attracts shallow narcissists, but their flaws and inconsistencies are brutally exposed in office amid existential crisis. Their response, as seen in this latest Brexit debacle, is to sow more discord to fire up their base. Yet what Britain, like the United States, needs more than anything is to find ways to renew fraying bonds to salvage our democracy, not wedges that drive people further apart. We need desperately to rediscover trust: in each other, in experts and in our institutions.

Ultimately, this may be a more profound challenge for our country than even the fight against pandemic.

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