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Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson have lost control of the fear factor

Dominic Cummings, senior aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, answers questions from the media after making a statement at 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Boris Johnson may come to regret his decision to allow his senior aide to contradict lockdown guidance, especially with the potential for a second coronavirus spike.

Fear has a bad reputation. Nobody wants to live in a society of fear; it’s an emotion to be avoided. As such, the role of the modern state is driven by the public’s desire to avoid those fear-inducing elements of modern life.

But that does not mean the role of the state is to eliminate fear. Rather it needs to manage what might be termed the ‘fear factor’. This is the fine line between using fear to encourage public compliance with the law (i.e. fear of prison is itself a preventative strategy), while at the same time convincing the very same people that they don’t need to live in a constant state of dread, anxiety and fearfulness.

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Using but not abusing the fear factor is therefore one of the most central but least discussed elements of political life. The government must maintain a delicate equilibrium. It must wear an iron first in a velvet glove.

Never before in peacetime has the fear factor become so central and explicit in British politics (and elsewhere) than during the COVID-19 crisis. The government has needed to maintain calm but also convince the public to recognise the scale of the health threat and to abide by the lockdown rules.

And most people did respond to the fear factor. They acknowledged the risks, played their role and stayed at home.

But whether they will continue to do so now, looks highly uncertain. Experts know how important the fear factor is in managing a pandemic. The US Center for Disease Control’s Field Epidemiology Manual emphasises the importance of effective risk communication to stimulate sufficient ‘risk perception’ – fear – in vulnerable populations during an outbreak. Predictably, clarity is considered key to this: clarity regarding the threat and clarity about what people should do to mitigate the threat.

And in this, the Westminster government has failed. It has lost control of the message and has put lives and livelihoods at risk.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had already muddied the message on May 10 when he shifted the official advice from ‘stay home’ to ‘stay alert’. In allowing his desire to please to trump restraint, he caused public confusion.

As if that were not bad enough, Johnson has defended Cummings. While the rest of the country was sticking to the government’s diktat, Cummings had driven to the other side of the country while his wife had symptoms.

Had he broken the rules?

‘No’ the prime minister told the nation; Cummings had acted ‘responsibly, legally and with integrity’. It was ‘instinct’ rather than ignorance or arrogance that had led him to Durham. That, in Johnson’s book was absolutely fine. But Stephen Reicher, a member of the government’s own advisory committee on behavioural science, said: ‘In a few short minutes 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’.

Like a bubble being burst, any public fears surrounding lockdown had suddenly dissipated. If there is one rule the British public won’t stand it’s the one that seems to apply to the many but not to a chosen few.

Managing the fear factor – that balance between social panic and public indifference – demands clarity. The shift in official messaging had already replaced precision with confusion. Now, the public finds that a powerful figure not only felt fearless enough to break the rules but has gone on to prove he was right not to be afraid, since there have been no repercussions for him whatsoever.

Even before these revelations, we have seen people – many of whom may fear lack of wages more than the virus – pack into public transportation to go to work. Others will surely follow now.

The question now is whether Johnson will bounce back from yet another calamitous decision and how he seeks to reconcile it with his persona. He has always been a populist politician. He longs to be loved and is therefore reluctant to tell the public the simple truth that – as Bernard Crick wrote 50 years ago – politics cannot make ‘all sad hearts glad’.

Johnson’s need to please combined with his personal fears – the loss of his carefully calibrated image as the jumping, japing, jester – may well have affected his ability to understand and use the ‘fear factor’. And yet at the same time his obvious reliance on Cummings has popped his populist pretensions. Dominic ‘man-of-the-people’ Cummings and Boris ‘slightly-less-man-of-the-people’ Johnson suddenly appear willing to defend the indefensible. They thereby demonstrate that when push comes to shove, there really is one rule for them and a different one for everyone else.

Once lost, the fear factor is hard to restore. Once the public has become fearless rather than fearful in relation to any topic or threat, it becomes almost impossible to use fear in a constructive, pragmatic and evidence-based manner. With the potential for a second coronavirus spike being a very real risk, the fact that Johnson baulked may well come back to haunt him.

• Matthew Flinders is the Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, University of Sheffield.

• Dan Degerman is a Research associate, Lancaster University.

• Matthew Thomas Johnson is a Senior Lecturer in Politics, Lancaster University.

This article first appeared at

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