Elites are flouting coronavirus restrictions — and that could hurt us all

So when the powerful or influential break the rules, it provokes fierce public anger and puts society’s inequalities on full view.

Ireland’s Minister for Agriculture Dara Calleary had already resigned over the so-called Golfgate scandal. The dinner was held a day after the government in which he served, facing a surge in cases, imposed restrictions — effective immediately — that limited indoor gatherings to six people, down from the 50 previously allowed.

Social distancing appears to have been largely disregarded at Republican National Convention events in the United States this past week. In perhaps the most striking instance, more than 1,000 people gathered on a White House lawn, few wearing masks and sitting close together, to hear President Donald Trump accept his party’s nomination Thursday night.

And in the United Kingdom, the behavior of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, has come to exemplify a double standard in the public mind where ordinary people are expected to follow the rules while the elite can apparently break them with impunity.

Cummings refused to apologize for driving the length of England with his wife and child during lockdown, while his wife was sick with suspected coronavirus, and subsequently driving to a beauty spot. Despite the furor, Cummings did not resign and was not sacked. His activities were investigated by the police, but he faced no action.
Such examples have a lasting impact on the public’s willingness to abide by restrictions, said Susan Michie, a professor of health psychology at University College London (UCL). Michie is part of the behavioral advisory group for the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which has been spearheading its coronavirus response. She is also part of a separate group of experts called Independent Sage.
“We know that trust and perceived fairness are both very important in terms of protecting adherence,” said Michie. “We also know from the data that’s collected from weekly surveys that trust diminished significantly, as did adherence, after the Dominic Cummings affair. Trust is very difficult to build up again — it’s easy to lose, difficult to build up.”

The decision by Johnson and his Cabinet to defend Cummings’ actions only made things worse, Michie said.

Other high-profile UK figures have also violated the rules. Scotland’s chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, resigned in April and was given a formal police warning after twice breaking lockdown restrictions to visit her second home.

Professor Neil Ferguson, a leading epidemiologist who advised the UK government on its coronavirus response resigned from his government post in May after he broke lockdown rules by allowing his reported lover to visit his home.

Such actions by influential figures “exacerbate a sense of disenfranchisement because it gives a message that it’s one rule for us, as in the privileged, and one rule for them,” said Linda Bauld, a professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh.

“So it’s very, very damaging, it’s a very unfortunate thing.”

‘The most foolish thing’

Sports stars and members of the cultural elite have been caught flouting restrictions too.

Author Neil Gaiman prompted outrage — and a visit from local police — when he blogged in May about traveling from New Zealand to his home on the remote Scottish island of Skye while travel restrictions were in place.
In a later post, he said he hadn’t been thinking clearly because of marital issues. “I want to apologize to everyone on the island for creating such a fuss,” he wrote. “I also want to thank and apologize to the local police, who had better things to do than check up on me. I’m sure I’ve done sillier things in my life, but this is the most foolish thing I’ve done in quite a while.”

England cricketer Jofra Archer was excluded from a Test match against the West Indies after he breached the team’s bio-secure protocols with an unauthorized visit to his home.

And a number of English Premier League soccer players, as well as Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho, were revealed to have breached lockdown restrictions. England and Manchester City footballer Kyle Walker apologized for reportedly hosting a party with two sex workers, while Everton striker Moise Kean was reprimanded for attending a party.

Such examples all have an impact, Michie said, particularly on young men, who are less likely to be sticking by the rules. Michie said she had been urging the UK government — so far to no avail — to make greater use of soccer players, singers and actors as role models in its information campaign, in order to reach different groups in society.

“We know that the more that people identify with the source, the more likely they are to adhere to it,” she said.

Poorest hit hardest by pandemic

The inequalities put on display when the rich and powerful flout the rules only add to public discontent.

Coronavirus has made Britain’s society even more unequal than it…

Read More: Elites are flouting coronavirus restrictions — and that could hurt us all

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