UCL News


‘Cummings effect’ led to loss of confidence in UK Government

7 August 2020

Public confidence in the UK Government’s ability to handle the Covid-19 pandemic dropped sharply following the news that Dominic Cummings, senior aide to the Prime Minister, had seemingly broken lockdown rules, finds new analysis by UCL researchers.

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The research, published in The Lancet, analysed data from the UCL Covid-19 Social Study, looking at over 220,000 survey results from more than 40,000 individuals between 24 April and 11 June to ascertain the negative impact of the news that Cummings had travelled 420km with his wife (who had suspected Covid-19) and child during lockdown. They found a clear decrease in confidence starting on 22 May (when the story initially broke) and continuing to fall quickly in the days following.

Launched in the week before lockdown started, the UCL Covid-19 Social Study is an ongoing study funded by the Nuffield Foundation with additional support from Wellcome and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). It is the UK’s largest study into how adults are feeling about the lockdown, government advice and overall wellbeing and mental health.

Respondents were asked how much confidence they had in the government’s handling of the epidemic from one (not at all) to seven (lots). Between 21-25 May, it dropped in England by approximately 0.4 points on this scale.

The researchers ascertained whether this drop in confidence was likely a result of Cummings’ actions (a ‘Cummings effect’) by comparing responses for those in England to those in Scotland and Wales, who were asked to rate their confidence in their own devolved governments. There was no evidence of a similar large drop in confidence in the governments of the devolved nations during the period analysed. Confidence in the UK Government against devolved nations was also compared to confidence in the health service to cope with the pandemic, and confidence that access to essentials (e.g. food and medication) would be maintained. Again, there was no evidence of a drop in these measures over the same dates.

Lead author of the study, Dr Daisy Fancourt (UCL Epidemiology & Health Care) 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.

“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.”

There has been no recovery from the Cummings effect in the weeks since the story broke, with confidence in England remaining low and gaps in confidence between England and the devolved nations widening over time. The news also had an impact on people’s willingness to follow rules and guidelines from the government. There had already been a gradual decrease in public adherence to guidelines prior to the publicity about Cummings’s actions, but this decline grew in the weeks following, especially in England.



Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Media contact

Jake Hawkes

Email: j.hawkes [at] ucl.ac.uk