Posts Tagged ‘lockdown’

How effectively have governments responded to COVID-19 so far?

Theologos Dergiades, Costas Milas, and Theodore Panagiotidis take stock of how governments across the world have dealt with the pandemic. Their research provides further evidence of a strong relationship between the eventual number of deaths and the strength and timing of government interventions.

The spread of COVID-19 seems to be slowing down in many countries. Governments have employed a number of measures to reach this stage. In economic terms, month-long lockdowns are pushing the world economy into recession. The OECD predicts that each month major economies spend in lockdown will remove two percentage points from the annual GDP growth. The International Monetary Fund predicts that global growth will fall by 3% in 2020. The Bank of England forecasts that the crisis will result in the deepest UK recession in 300 years. In fact, the situation appears so grim that the Bank of England is considering negative interest rates for the first time ever.

At the same time, research flags the damaging effects caused by the lack of mitigation actions for the economy – as the infection spreads to workers, failure to mitigate its peak may trigger very large upfront costs in terms of output, consumption, and investment.

In new research, we used daily data on COVID-19-related deaths for 32 countries between January and April 2020 to assess the relationship between deaths and government interventions. Using statistical tests, we were able to identify a break in the growth rate of deaths country by country. Our findings suggest that for the UK, the ‘structural break’ in the growth rate of deaths occurred on 3 April; between one and two weeks after that for other European countries including Italy, France, Spain and the Netherlands. We also estimate that deaths in the UK grew by an average of 21.6% per day up to 3 April, after which it was suppressed to zero.

We then assessed the impact of government interventions on the average growth rate of deaths. To do so, we used the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) index which quantifies the stringency of policies adopted across the various countries. The index on any given day and country is the average of nine sub-indices: school closures, workplace closures, cancellation of public events, restrictions on gathering size, closure of public transport, stay at home requirements, restrictions on internal movement, restrictions on international travel, and public information campaign. Each of these takes a value between 0 and 100, with a higher value indicating more stringency.

As seen in Figure 1, stringency measures in China increased steeply in late January 2020. Among other countries, stringency measures in Italy increased significantly in late February. Only after that followed Spain, France, the UK and the US.

The countries are: Argentina (AR), Austria (AT), Belgium (BE), Brazil (BR), Canada (CA), Chile (CL), China (CN), Denmark (DK), Egypt (EG), France(FR), Germany (DE), Greece (GR), Indonesia (ID), Iran (IR), Ireland (IE), Israel (IL), Italy (IT), Japan (JP), South Korea (KR), Malaysia (MY), the Netherlands (NL), Norway (NO), Panama (PA), Philippines (PH), Portugal (PT), Saudi Arabia (SA), Spain (ES), Sweden (SE), Switzerland (CH), Turkey (TR), United Kingdom (GB) and United States (US).

Using this index, we were able to confirm that the greater the strength of government intervention at an early stage, the more effective it was in slowing down or reversing the growth rate of deaths. Figure 2 shows that countries like the UK and the US, who were late in their response, register only a probability of 0.3% (or lower) of ensuring an insignificant growth rate of deaths as the outbreak evolved. This explains why these countries are still registering more deaths compared to others. Sweden, which adopted a far less stringent approach towards the pandemic, registers a 0% probability of slashing the growth rate of deaths.

In contrast, by acting swiftly and decisively, Greece registered a much higher probability of maintaining an insignificant trend in deaths compared to other European countries. At 27%, the probability of maintaining an insignificant trend in Greek deaths related to COVID-19 was notably higher than the corresponding probability of 13% in Italy and 8% in Germany, for example.

Much remains unknown about the effectiveness of individual interventions, such as school closures. Overall, however, our results suggest that the number of deaths related to the pandemic can be limited by strong government measures taken as early as possible. Norway, one of the first countries in Europe to impose a lockdown on 12 March, recorded a 98% probability of achieving an insignificant trend in COVID-19 deaths according to Figure 2. Contrast that with the UK which only introduced lockdown restrictions on 23 March and consequently recorded a 0.3% probability of achieving an insignificant trend in deaths. There is obviously a tradeoff between acting as early as possible to save lives and the adverse impact early interventions can have on the economy. This is an unresolved issue that merits proper empirical research.

Other issues that need to be investigated include the actual number of deaths related to COVID-19. Ongoing research by The Financial Times suggests that global deaths linked to COVID-19 may be 60% higher than currently recorded. In addition, further Financial Times analysis suggests that the UK has recorded the highest rate of death among 19 countries that produce comparable data. The UK government’s decision to implement a ’test and trace’ approach might go some way towards dealing with additional waves of the outbreak but it is not a panacea – not least because it remains unclear when the system will become fully operable and how exactly it will work.

What is clear to us is that early and strong interventions do save lives. Therefore, the UK should not hesitate to move fast by imposing another national lockdown if outbreak signals are received by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.

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Note: the above draws on the authors’ paper available here.

About the Authors

Theologos Dergiades is Lecturer in the Department of International & European Studies at the University of Macedonia.

 

 

Costas Milas is Professor in the Management School at the University of Liverpool.

 

 

Theodore Panagiotidis is Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Macedonia.

 

 

 

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: by Vincent Ghilione on Unsplash.

A modern ‘Rasputin’, or the UK’s ‘Vice-Premier’? Whichever view you take, Cummings’s role is unprecedented

In the Dominic Cummings row, developments are not only unprecedent because they concern an unelected adviser but also because they are impacting on the country’s ability to deal with the health and financial crises. This scandal is thus affecting lives and livelihoods, argues Patrick Dunleavy.

Dominic Cummings set out to be, and has certainly become, a sharply polarizing force in British politics. After his COVID-19 travel debacles, much of the country takes a fiercely hostile view of his immanent sense of privilege, including but not restricted to his many anti-Brexit opponents. For them, Cummings is a Rasputin-like figure, a sinister and shadowy influencer with a mysterious hold over a dazed and confused Boris Johnson (the Tsar in this version) and his scheming adjunct (Cummings’s first and most committed sponsor, Michael Gove).

Like Rasputin, Cummings picks gratuitous fights with all around him, insults every established elite, briefs relentlessly against his enemies, is unworried at being pervasively loathed, and is completely convinced of his untouchability because of his hold over the PM. In a developed form, some versions of this view take Cummings as an embodiment of many malignant dark forces on the right, pushing for an unrestrained populist assault on any constitutional element force constraining No.10’s privatizing freedom of action.

Almost as extreme in a different way, however, is the view amongst some Conservatives, all Johnson-regime loyalists, and the far-right neo-liberal think tanks and pressure groups, that Cummings must somehow be defended at all costs because of his critical importance for the current government. In this perspective, his role is akin to that of Vice-Premier, providing a Dick Cheney-like Brexiteer and free marketerr spine for an otherwise out-of-his-depth PM. The 25 May press conference in the 10 Downing Street Rose Garden, with Cummings scripting and delivering his own defence, gave enormous substance to this VP role, affording him a prominence, prestige, and official backing never before given to any cabinet minister in trouble of this kind. There is no UK constitutional role for ‘the PM’s chief aide’, nor are there any established political mechanisms for holding such a ‘Vice-Premier’ to account.

The fact that Cummings evinced absolutely no regret and gave no apologies for his overtly lockdown-breaking behaviour has already occasioned a lot of comment. But in addition, he deliberately garlanded his account of his actions with many details that signalled ‘unreliable narrator’ as clearly as any postmodernist novel – such as testing his potentially problematic eyesight by driving 60 miles to a beauty spot; and portraying his initial midnight dash to Durham as the actions of a man alone, without resources, friendless in London, and on his last possible throw to save his family.

How ministerial resignations are different

Compare all this with the accepted playbook of ministerial resignations charted by Keith Dowding and his co-authors in Accounting for Ministers. Using detailed statistical analysis and a comprehensive survey of cases, they showed that a minister who got into trouble was normally left to fight their corner alone at first, with the PM and 10 Downing Street referring critics to the minister’s explanation of their behaviour, while conspicuously omitting to pledge anything like full support or confidence in them. After a few days, media attention would either subside because the story had no legs, or be kicked into the short grass of a Cabinet Secretary inquiry, or the minister would respond to support in their party crumbling away – penning protestations of loyalty to the PM in their letter of resignation, reaffirming their innocence but leaving so that their conduct should not displace the story of the government’s successes further from public view.

Dowding et al demonstrated that such ‘grasping the revolver’ moments tended to coincide spookily with polling evidence that the minister’s alleged misdeeds were imperiling public support for the PM or the government, following which No 10 statements would communicate a certain impersonal coolness and detachment, until the minister took the hint to go. Similarly, where an investigation had been triggered and misconduct allegations even partially confirmed, the minister got no second chance to state their case – merely the intimation that it is better to resign first than be sacked. In a jostling cabinet of 23, with many more junior ministers knocking on the door, plenty of rivals are usually prepared to help No 10 brief against a black sheep minister who resists pressure to go. And replacing the culprit once gone rarely causes any lasting inconvenience to a Prime Minister.

Yet now, apparently, Cummings is sui generis. He has no rivals or possible replacements as the Svengali of Downing Street. Instead many compliant hapless senior ministers obediently rushed to tweet whatever they are told to do at the behest of the PM’s chief aide, even when ignorant of much about the situation. This is an Armando Iannucci playbook straight out of his ‘The Thick of It’, which increasingly reads as the go-to manual for anyone wanting to understand the Johnson-Cummings regime. In the process, most of the cabinet seem to have succeeded only in publicly identifying themselves as ‘meat in the room’ – a phrase made famous in another Iannucci classic, describing people whose role was just to pad out the table at big meetings and repeat the regime line in public.

Sometimes ministers do survive potential resignation scandals. When Culture Secretary in 2012, Jeremy Hunt was in charge of deciding whether to allow the News Corporation takeover of BSkyB, which Murdoch was desperate to do at the time. During this period, Adam Smith, an advisor in Hunt’s office, sent hundreds of emails to NewsCorp’s media liaison section, apparently a flagrant breach of Hunt’s quasi-judicial role in this decision. An inquiry later whitewashed Hunt, who apparently knew nothing of his aide’s activities. Against the odds, Hunt survived to become a long-lasting Health Secretary and eventual challenger to Johnson for the Tory leadership in 2019 – keeping his copybook conspicuously clean of further blots along the way.

The looming context

What makes the Cummings case so different too, is the unprecedented salience of his controversial behaviours. The UK has suffered a huge coronavirus disruption for weeks, and lost more than 60,000 people to the virus. The explanation of what has gone so catastrophically wrong so quickly, and which will affect the economy and public finances for at least a decade ahead, is still emerging. But it seems safe to say an ongoing omni-crisis has been created at many levels:

  • An initial and wholly familiar UK core executive policy disaster where the Johnson-Cummings regime from January to late March minimized the coming threat and gratuitously delayed taking action, partly while believing in Cummings’s alleged dalliance with ‘herd immunity’ solutions.
  • A public service delivery disaster that was unplanned and unintended. An austerity-vulnerable and hopelessly under-equipped NHS was ‘protected’ only by repelling many cases from hospitals, and leaving the social care sector to completely fend for itself in caring for the very elderly.
  • Structural failures built into the public services by a decade of Cameron-Clegg-May austerity, the failure to undertake any other remedial policy changes during the Brexit era (2016-19), and the withering away of local government and public health capabilities.
  • A second core executive policy fiasco in the ludicrous over-centralization of coronavirus crisis management efforts in No 10, with Cummings’s cronies and associates brought in from the private sector, which has created huge problems. The established bureaucracies in the civil service have produced substantial and reasonably well-working initiatives, like the Treasury/HMRC’s furlough scheme and aid to the self-employed, and DWP’s massive expansion of job-seeker benefits. All three massive policy initiatives were successfully implemented at speed. In acute contrast, Cummings and his Downing Street ‘irregulars’, feuding non-stop with the shattered post-Lansley/post-Hunt Department of Health, have produced only a series of feeble, late, non-working initiatives – the Dyson ventilators, the defective PPE flown in from Turkey, the ‘NHS volunteers’ recruited and left untasked in their tens of thousands, the contact-tracing app that does not work. Many No 10 efforts seem to have gone solely into dreaming up bogus, one-day ‘good news’ stories for limping ministerial briefings – a kind of ‘crisis management by think tank’ strategy.
  • A third level of core executive policy fiasco has now been added by the decision to bulldoze past the Cummings scandal, whatever the cost to public trust, and the wider mismanagement of easing lockdown messages by a health-impaired Johnson.

Normally, the costs of blatant misconduct within the core executive are exclusively political and occasionally administrative: a blow to government popularity, a short downward blip in a Whitehall department’s performance, or another dent in public trust in government. The possible costs of the Cummings scandal, and of Johnson’s decision to brazen his way through it, are again historically unique – for they could yet be counted in terms of more body bags and an even more shattered economy in the weeks ahead, and in the autumn and winter to come.

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About the Author

Patrick Dunleavy is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the LSE, and co-author of The UK’s Changing Democracy (LSE Press, 2018) – free to download here. His next book is Maximizing the Impacts of Academic Research (co-authored), forthcoming from Macmillan in October 2020. He tweets at @PJDunleavy and @Write4Research.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Minute’s Silence Held For Key Workers Who Have Died During Coronavirus Pandemic by Number 10 on Flickr (BY-NC-ND).

The Cummings row undermines the sense of collective solidarity on which the lockdown relies

The so-far widespread compliance with lockdown measures is driven by social identity and collective responsibility, new data confirms. This substantiates further the argument that by defending Dominic Cummings, the government risks undermining the fight against the virus, write Jonathan Jackson, Reka Solymosi, Chris Posch, Ben Bradford, Zoe Hobson, Arabella Kyprianides, and Julia Yesberg.

Soon after the easing of lockdown measures on 13 May, Boris Johnson is said to have quipped to colleagues: ‘I’ve learnt that it’s much easier to take people’s freedoms away than give them back.’ With the government now announcing the next stages of lockdown release (e.g. more shops will reopen on June 15), officials may be wondering whether widespread fear of the virus will leave people reluctant to take advantage of their new-found freedoms and get the economy moving again.

Over the next few weeks and months, it is likely that lockdown will be replaced with contact-tracing, testing, and quarantine. Implementing this will require high levels of public support, and there is early evidence that people comply with public health measures not because of individualised fear, but because of a sense of shared identity and common fate with others. Thinking about the issue in this way turns the question of compliance on its head: it shifts the focus away from individual risk and responsibility, towards ensuring that people collectively adhere to health measures on behalf of the common good.

It is no wonder, then, that the Dominic Cummings scandal is stimulating so much heated debate. To comply with the rules is to signal to others a sense of solidarity. To go against them implies that ‘there is one rule for them and another rule for us‘, and some are wondering whether the actions of the PM’s Chief Strategist – backed by the PM himself – risks damaging public trust and compromising widespread solidarity in the fight against the deadly virus.

What does ‘the science’ say about fear and group bonds/coordination?

We have previously presented evidence that self-reported adherence to lockdown requirements was rooted not in fear of the virus, police or law, but in a widespread sense of duty and solidarity. We analysed data from the first wave of a multi-wave panel study to track the experiences, attitudes, and behaviours of 1,200 people recruited on the platform Prolific Academic – 300 living in London and 100 living in each of Edinburgh, Newcastle, Cardiff, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Glasgow.

We now have second wave data, collected on 11-14 May, just on the cusp of the easing of lockdown. For enthusiasts of longitudinal research, the attrition rate was an astonishing 8%, with 92% of people taking part in wave 1 continuing in the study to wave 2.

Wave 2 fielded questions designed to reflect some of the nuances of emotional and behavioural responses to risk. We find that just under two-thirds (64%) said that they had felt worried about getting COVID-19 in the past three weeks. Of the 699 people who said they had worried, around a half (51%) said that their quality of life had been reduced either ‘not at all’ or ‘a little’ by their worry about getting COVID-19.

Criminological work has found that, while some instances of worry can be destructive and paralysing, some people and some communities have the potential and the willingness to convert worry about crime into constructive action. In our study, the majority of people said ‘yes’ (91%) when we asked ‘do you take any precautions against getting COVID-19?’. These precautions seemed to make people feel safer as a result (81% said ‘moderately’, ‘quite a bit’ and ‘very much’), but for some it also reduced their quality of life (55% said ‘moderately’, ‘quite a bit’ and ‘very much’).

Based on their worries about catching the virus, as well as the self-reported effect of their worries and precautions on quality of life, we can divide research participants into one of four groups:

  • The ‘unworried’ group (36%): those who had not worried once about catching COVID-19 over the previous three weeks;
  • The ‘seemingly confused’ group (3%): those who had worried about catching COVID-19 but did not take any precautions against the virus;
  • The ‘worried but wellbeing-unaffected’ group (31%): those who had worried, took precautions, and quality of life was not affected;
  • The ‘worried and wellbeing-affected’ group (30%): those who had worried, took precautions, and quality of life was affected.

Does ‘fear’ shape lockdown compliance?

This categorisation allows us to assess the relationship between emotional and behavioural responses to risk and lockdown compliance. To measure lockdown compliance (just before the recent easing), we asked participants ‘How often during the past week have you engaged in each of the following behaviours during the COVID-19 outbreak?’:

  • ‘socialised in person with friends or relatives whom you don’t live with?’ (74% said never, 17% rarely, 6% sometimes and 3% often or very often),
  • ‘went out for a walk, run, or cycle and spent more than a few minutes sitting somewhere to relax?’ (57% said never, 15% rarely, 15% sometimes, and 13% often or very often), and
  • ‘travelled for leisure (e.g. driven somewhere to go for a walk)?’ (82% said never, 10% rarely, 5% sometimes and 3% often or very often).

It’s not about fear of the virus or fear of the police

We find no difference in levels of lockdown compliance, comparing the ‘unworried’, the ‘seemingly confused’ and the ‘worried but wellbeing-affected’. Some people admit bending the rules, but for these groups the presence or absence of worry about catching COVID-19 does not seem part of the explanation. We find that the ‘worried but wellbeing-unaffected’ group actually had higher levels of lockdown compliance, adjusting for the many other factors in the statistical model.

As in wave 1 (data collected in late April), we find no evidence that deterrence plays a role in compliance. Unsurprisingly, given the police’s ‘enforcement as last resort’ policy centred on procedural fairness, perceptions of the likelihood that the police would step in (if people were flouting the rules) decreased between late April and early to mid-May. But while levels of lockdown compliance were also lower in wave 2 than they were in wave 1, this decrease in perceptual deterrence does not seem to explain the decrease in compliance.

Compliance is about social identity and collective responsibility rooted in legal requirement

Just like in late April, we find that social norms backed up by symbolic legal force are crucial.

Norms guide behaviour and attitudes in a number of different ways: people look to the behaviour of others to determine what is normal, beneficial, and accepted; people benefit from acting in certain ways through social approval and refrain from acting in certain ways via social disapproval; and by defining ‘who we are’, norms define social groups, and are especially powerful when people identify with the particular social group. By helping to make people accountable to each other, norms solve collective action problems.

There is also symbolic import to the fact that something is made legally required/prohibited. By turning social distancing into legal requirement, the legal system acts as an expressive agent: it sends the message to the nation that the threat is to the group rather than the individual, and that we collectively need to take the virus seriously. It also clarifies how citizens need to act to fight the pandemic.

This seems to have worked among our sample, with 94% agreeing with the statement ‘by making it a legal requirement, the government sent the message that social distancing is important to fight the pandemic’ and 92% of people agreeing with the statement ‘introducing the social distancing rules helped communicate to the public the need to do what we can to stop the pandemic from spreading’. Stronger agreements with these statements was associated with greater compliance.

Our research participants also seem to act as expressive agents in response to legal requirement. We find that 87% of people agreed with the statement ‘observing the social distancing laws shows other people in my community that I care for their safety’ and 82% of people agreed with the statement ‘following the social distancing rules helps me feel that I am part of the collective fight against the pandemic’. The law seemed to have helped frame the threat and the solution at the group rather than the individual level.

According to our multivariate analysis, when people comply with lockdown law, they signal to each other a sense of collective solidarity and shared identity in a way that works in addition to the role that social norms play. Acting in unison binds people together, especially when there is a legal requirement to coordinate at the group level against a common threat.

Routes ahead

So what does all this mean as lockdown eases, as track and tracing begins, and as the message from government is increasingly one of individual choice rather than collective solidarity? At a time when the PM’s defence of Dominic Cummings risks undermining the sense that ‘we truly are all in it together’, what are some plausible roads of travel?

Our findings suggest, at least looking back to the height of lockdown when the restrictions were rigid, that it was not fear of COVID-19 that drove adherence to the public health measures that are needed to control the virus. It was, instead, a sense of shared identity and collective responsibility, backed up by the extraordinarily popular laws underpinning lockdown.

Looking forward to the coming few weeks and months, we will need people to be collectively willing to act appropriately in terms of social distancing and hygiene, to tell officials who their contacts have been, and to isolate if they get the disease. Voluntary public compliance will be as important as it ever was, as we adjust to greater degree of relaxation. Adherence to guidelines relies on solidarity rather than fear, and we will need people to trust the government if we are to fight the virus and come out of this together.

Our data are consistent with the concerns of key members of SPI-B – that by defending Cummings and failing to communicate effectively, the government risks undermining the message of social solidarity and jeopardising the widespread support that has served the nation so well thus far. Will this occur among our sample of people? Wave 3 will be in the field next week, so watch this space!

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About the Authors

Jonathan Jackson is Professor in Research Methodology and Head of the LSE Department of Methodology.

Reka Solymosi isLecturer in Quantitative Methods at the Department of Criminology at University of Manchester.

Chris Posch is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Methodology at LSE.

Ben Bradford is Professor of Global City Policing in the Department of Security and Crime Science at UCL.

Zoe Hobson is a Researcher in the Department of Security and Crime Science at UCL.

Arabella Kyprianides is a Research Fellow in the Department of Security and Crime Science at UCL.

Julia Yesberg is Research Fellow in the Department of Security and Crime Science at UCL.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: by United Nations COVID-19 Response Unsplash.

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