The scandal over Dominic Cummings’ trips to and around Durham during lockdown damaged trust and was a key factor in the breakdown of a sense of national unity amid the coronavirus pandemic, research suggests.
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Revelations that Cummings and his family travelled to his parents’ farm despite ministers repeatedly imploring the public to stay at home – as exposed by the Guardian and the Daily Mirror in May – also crystallised distrust in politicians over the crisis, according to a report from the thinktank British Future.
The findings emerged in a series of surveys, diaries and interviews carried out over the first months of the pandemic as the public got to grips with profound changes to their habits, relationships and lifestyles.
It found that while the start of lockdown forged a new community spirit and softened divisions caused by Brexit, this dissipated as the Cummings scandal emerged, lockdown rules were eased and social tensions resurfaced, especially over how far people observed social distancing rules.
While the pandemic has made the UK overall less divided – and revealed an appetite to hang on to perceived gains in community spirit created under lockdown – it warns that tensions could re-emerge in the coming recession over issues such as growing perceptions of a gap between rich and poor.
Jill Rutter, the author of the report, said: “There’s a risk that past divides are re-emerging as society starts to reopen. The shared experience of lockdown made many people feel more connected to their neighbours and local community. Now that sense of togetherness is starting to fray. The good news is that people would rather we kept hold of it.”
The study notes: “The perception that the prime minister’s adviser, Dominic Cummings, had broken lockdown rules was a highly salient issue that appeared to damage trust in politicians.”
Participants in the research grew “noticeably angrier” about politicians after the revelations, although it also served to create fresh consensus. “It was not, however, as divisive an incident as might be thought. Most people, irrespective of their political views, appeared to disapprove of Cummings’ action.”
The study was carried out for the /Together coalition, a campaign set up in the wake of Brexit to bridge social divides and build a kinder society. It comprises two surveys of more than 2,000 people carried out in early March and late May and June, and material from online discussion groups and 36 WhatsApp diarists.
The start of lockdown heralded a new community spirit, characterised by neighbourly generosity, volunteering, enhanced social connectedness, and “acts of kindness from strangers” – all promoting strong feelings of national unity, the study found.
This sense of togetherness and generosity, typified by the weekly clap for carers in support of the NHS and other frontline workers, made people feel “part of something that was positive and larger than just their street” and helped heal deep social divisions over Brexit.
But by mid-May, this unity had started to dissipate, researchers found, with the perception that “some groups of people were not observing social distancing rules” becoming a major source of division, especially as lockdown rules were eased.
In addition to the Cummings revelations, the sense of unity broke down further as differences in lockdown policy emerged between the Westminster and devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. There were also differences in attitudes to, and experiences of, the pandemic between young and old, and home workers and key workers.
A major public concern was the division between rich and poor. “It was felt that those in power needed to address wealth divides, but also recognise that more work was needed to bring people together in urban areas with a more transient population.”
There was widespread support for the Black Lives Matter campaign – including broad support from people of all ethic groups and ages for action to tackle inequality and racial prejudice in the UK – although there was concern about violence on some of the protests.
The study urges the government to invest in the positive bonds created under lockdown, such as in volunteering programmes. “Our leaders, whatever their political views, need to make healing social divides a priority, and to commit a practical agenda to make it happen,” it said.
Quotes on Cummings in answer to a question posed in early June: Are we more divided or more united as a country?
“More divided, two reasons. The first is the Dominic Cummings saga. The vast majority of people see it as one rule for those in charge and one rule for everyone else and this is now causing issues as many people are flaunting lockdown rules, whilst others are at the opposite end of the scale and worried about government advice and whether to trust them.” – Male, 45, Yorkshire, remain supporter
“We are a little less together than we were. During the height of … lockdown I felt there was a real community/‘in this together spirit’, which probably peaked at VE Day. Then as lockdown eased, different people were at different levels and saw the easing differently. But then the Cummings situation kind of brought everyone back together again. Today I would say we are at very early days of how things were before lockdown, albeit a little bit more community spirit than before.” – Female, east of England, leave supporter
“In short: undoubtedly more divided. More detail: it was relatively easy to persuade the country to go into lockdown. Easing the restrictions has produced a whole spectrum of differing opinions never mind the uproar the Dominic Cummings saga has added to the debate.” – Male, West Midlands