Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Two Faces of Trust: Why Trust Matters for COVID-19

Gerry Stoker, Will Jennings, Dan Devine, Jen Gaskell

Trust is at the heart of societal and governmental responses to COVID-19, and will inevitably shape and be shaped by those responses. On the one hand, trust is essential for democratic governments needing the consent and support of citizens to cooperate with the substantial restrictions on their social and economic lives. At the same time, the crisis is proving to be a driver of political trust – initially as many citizens evaluated political authorities in the context of a national crisis, but later as those authorities have come in for public criticism as their handling of the crisis has come under scrutiny – accruing ‘costs of governing’ as bad news builds up. So, is trust going up or down?

There is some evidence that the pandemic has increased political trust – at least in the short-term. In many countries, trust in political leaders increased following declaration of the pandemic by the World Health Organisation – public perceptions of Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, Boris Johnson, Giuseppe Conte and Scott Morrison all improved in the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis. Traditional explanations of such ‘rally-round-the-flag’ effects suggest that at times of national crisis, patriotic feelings lead the public to view the incumbent leader as the focus of national unity, inflating their support as citizens set aside partisan biases. One study has found that trust in government increased in the aftermath of the lockdowns put in place by West European governments during March 2020.

Not all countries have enjoyed such a rally-round-the-flag, however. In the polarised partisan context of the USA, the increase in approval of President Donald Trump has proved modest and short-lived. In Brazil, the populist far-right president Jair Bolsonaro’s ratings have actually fallen since the outbreak, with the public seemingly unimpressed by his coronavirus-denialism and political infighting within the government.

Lately, most world leaders have seen a levelling of the curve in their popularity ratings, with some experiencing declines in approval. In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ratings have fallen – as has approval of the government’s handling of COVID-19 – as the policy response to the crisis has come under scrutiny. We should expect more in the way of these ‘costs of governing’ as the crisis unfolds – and the periodic drip-drip of bad news leads voters to view the government and its handling of the issue in a more negative light. While effective governance of the pandemic depends upon trust, missteps in how it is handled may make it more difficult to navigate.

In the UK, reaction to the Cummings row over sticking to lockdown guidelines could prove critical to the government’s policy response. One member of the government’s scientific advisory group on behavioural responses of citizens to the crisis suggested that in defending his advisor “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.” Perception of there being one rule for elites and another for the public – could lead to declining compliance. Existing studies suggest that higher levels of trust in government are associated with greater public compliance with health policies, such as measures relating to quarantining, testing and restrictions on mass gatherings. Without trust, the UK government’s response to COVID-19 is in huge trouble. If the consequence of this were an increase in the rate of transmission of the virus (the ‘R’), then the effects of such an erosion of trust would be very significant indeed.

Note: The ‘TrustGov’ project led by Will Jennings, Gerry Stoker and Pippa Norris is supported by a large grant from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ref: ES/S009809/1)

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About The Authors

Gerry Stoker

Gerry Stoker is Professor of Politics and Governance at the University of Southampton. ...

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Will Jennings

Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Southampton....

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Dan Devine

Dan Devine are Research Fellows with the TrustGov project at the University of Southampton....

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Jen Gaskell

Jen Gaskell are Research Fellows with the TrustGov project at the University of Southampton....

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