The week’s events show the importance of the rule of law in maintaining public trust in a pandemic, and the urgent need to understand its significance to avoid a deadly second waveby Murray Hunt / May 29, 2020 / Leave a comment
Reactions to Dominic Cummings’s behaviour this week have frequently invoked familiar ideas: “no one is above the law,” “the law applies equally to everyone,” “those who make the law are also subject to the law.” No democratic government can be seen to say “one rule for us, another rule for the rest of you.” As eminent British judge Tom Bingham once memorably reminded us, these are all essential elements of the basic idea of the rule of law, and at one level the week’s events have provided a heartening reminder of the enduring popular appeal of these fundamental values and the force with which they are held in the UK. As the PM’s adviser himself said in his statement, people in this country do not like unfairness. What they do like, with some passion, it turns out, is the rule of law.
But much more interesting and, in the long run, important than the immediate political question of whether or not the current chief adviser to today’s prime minister should resign or be sacked for appearing to disregard these basic tenets, is what the episode reveals in general about the mutual dependency of the rule of law and public trust—and in particular about the importance of the rule of law in maintaining trust both during and after a public health emergency.
To be effective, public health measures both to respond to and recover from emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic must first be adopted by governments and then adhered to by the public. Trust is key both to adoption and adherence: trust in institutions (national and international), in the emergency response and recovery measures, and in the science that underpins those measures.
This crucial link between effectiveness, public trust and good governance was demonstrated by last week’s Oxford University study of conspiracy theories and levels of compliance, showing that the low level of trust in institutions may impede the response to the pandemic. It is no surprise, then, that the WHO also acknowledges the connection and the need to better understand it, calling in its Research Roadmap for studies which demonstrate effective approaches to promote acceptance, uptake, and adherence to public health measures and to identify practical steps to improve fairness, efficiency and transparency of governance processes.
This week’s furore…