Public Trust in Political Leadership Key in Responses to COVID-19 Pandemic

24.05.20 Publication:

Last December, the government of my country, the UK, looked supremely powerful and
confident. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party had just won a
commanding parliamentary majority in the general election held on December 12 th . The
opposition Labour Party was in disarray. Mr Johnson now seemed able not just to complete
Brexit and take the UK out of the European Union but also to build his own political agenda
and, in the view of most commentators, to lead Britain for the next ten years. Yet now, six
months later, things look very different. The UK government looks weak and there is even
gossip in the party about removing Boris Johnson.

The reason why this British political situation is worth commenting upon is that it
may offer some indications about how the various national political responses to the covid-
19 pandemic – in the USA, in Europe, in Japan – can be assessed. Before doing so, we should
admit that all countries are only in the early stages of this crisis. It is just five months since
news of the pandemic emerged from China, less than four months since it arrived in
Germany and Italy (which had the first known cases in Europe), and really less than two
months since the disease began to be taken seriously in both Britain and the USA. The big
economic effects still lie in the future.

Yet what we can already see is that four large European countries have suffered
similarly severe impacts in terms of deaths from this coronavirus — Italy, Spain, France and
the UK – but with different political repercussions. It is still difficult to make comparisons
because each country counts covid-19 deaths in different ways, and the true impact in
terms of how many more deaths happen in total compared with previous annual averages
will not be known for some time. But it is known that each of these countries had, as of May
16 th , suffered at least 27,000 deaths, and that Britain headed the list with 34,000. Spain has
the highest per-capita death rate but Italy and Britain are close behind.

Every country that has suffered high mortality rates has made similar mistakes,
usually thanks to lack of preparations and to slow political decision-making. In Italy’s case,
and more specifically the region of Lombardy that surrounds the country’s financial and
fashion capital, Milan, what also happened is that the health system became overwhelmed
by the number of covid-19 patients and the severity of their sicknesses, meaning that some
people died without being able to be admitted to hospital or because there were too few
intensive care beds and facilities available.

So you might have expected that the public and political criticism during this health
crisis would be somehow proportional to both the mortality rate and the capability of the
health system to respond. But that is not what has happened. In France, President
Emmanuel Macron was already unpopular before the pandemic but has become a little
more popular during it. In Spain, the quite new leftwing coalition government has received
strong support. In Italy, the regional governor of Lombardy, who comes from the opposition
Lega party, has suffered some criticism but remains still quite popular, and both the prime
minister personally (Giuseppe Conte) and the national government has become a lot more
popular than before.

Britain is the exception. Certainly, in the early stages of the crisis, support for the
Conservative government and for Prime Minister Johnson personally increased quite                                        strongly. But at that time the opposition Labour Party had not yet chosen a new leader; its
previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had resigned following the December election defeat. Mr
Johnson also drew a lot of sympathy and support when he was hospitalised with covid-19
and was clearly quite seriously ill. But now that he is back at work and now that the
opposition party has chosen a very effective new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, Mr Johnson’s
fortunes have declined sharply.

One cannot be exactly certain about why this has happened. Nor, given the size of
the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority should we exaggerate its immediate significance.
Nevertheless, in opinion polls Mr Johnson’s approval ratings has fallen sharply and is now
below that of Labour’s new leader. And even the parts of the news media that have
traditionally given strong support to the Conservative Party have become quite hostile in
their criticism of Mr Johnson.

Let us return to the comparison with Italy, and add a further comparison with both
Japan and the USA. What differentiates Britain and Italy is not the health outcome, which is
broadly similar, but rather the level of public trust in the country’s leadership in their
response to this unprecedented crisis. For trust, consistency and clarity both of decision-
making and of communication have proven crucial.

In Italy, the national government is seen to have shown exactly that sort of
consistency and clarity. In Britain, like in the US, the national government has regularly
changed its position, has sent confusing messages about what was happening and what the
government was doing, and has not appeared to fully understand the detail about even its
own policies let alone about the health crisis. It has been so inconsistent about matters such
as how many covid-19 tests it is conducting or how much protection it is giving to the
elderly in care homes that it is now widely distrusted.

In the US, New York State has suffered the worst health outcomes yet its governor,
Andrew Cuomo, has been credited with much greater clarity and consistency than has
President Donald Trump and so is more popular. In Japan, something similar may be
happening: despite far fewer deaths and much less severe social restrictions, the
government of Prime Minister Abe has fallen in popularity because of its inconsistent and
unclear communication.

For President Trump, the test of how much this matters politically will be
determined in the November presidential election. For Prime Minister Johnson, the
overwhelming impression now, in the public and among political commentators, is that he is
the wrong man for the job. He looks out of his depth, unable to build confidence through a
clear grasp of detail or a commanding sense of leadership of public institutions. He is no
Margaret Thatcher, in other words, nor a Winston Churchill. For the moment, though, he
cannot easily be removed from office by his party. But if he now mismanages the economic
aftermath of the pandemic, this may well happen. Politics can be a cruel and unforgiving

Image by Miroslava Chrienova from Pixabay