By Tom Barton @tombarton
When Dominic Cummings visited woods near Barnard Castle earlier this year, he probably didn’t expect his actions would cause a collapse in public trust. But according to Professor Steve Riecher, a leading behavioural psychologist and government advisor, that’s exactly what happened.
In the week after the Prime Minister's chief advisor was forced to give a press conference in Downing Street's rose garden, “trust in the UK Government fell by 21 points,” he tells me. And, he says, that had a real impact on people’s behaviour.
Prof Reicher, who is part of the government's SPI-B advisory group on behaviour, says that Boris Johnson's defence of Mr Cummings sent the message to the public that “it's perfectly understandable that an individual puts their own interests, and the interests of their family, before the community”.
Compliance with the rules, he argues, “is critically dependent on thinking that authority is on our side”, something he claims was undermined by the impressions “that there's one law for them and another for us.”
On the streets of Barnard Castle, though, people I spoke to were more skeptical of the impact of Dominic Cummings’s visit.
One man told me the issue was “weaponised”, another that the reaction was part of “a political game”. Someone else recognised that Mr Cummings “was in a position of trust, and really and truly should have behaved himself”. But, she said “I think it was blown out of proportion.”
Meanwhile in Valentine’s restaurant, owner Mark Sutherland is conflicted about the whole affair: “it's a double edged sword for us,” he says.
He remembers people “flooding to Barnard Castle” to see “this lovely little town" which had "appeared on the television.” But at the same time, he says, “they kind of forgot Covid was about. There was not so much social distancing as we'd like. It was great for us in one way, but the other side, it was packed with a lot of people from further afield.”
See Tom Barton's full report here: