How the flouting of COVID-19 restrictions by leaders damages credibility and trust

It's not just in Britain where stories about rule-breaking rule-makers who undermine important messaging have made headlines over the course of the pandemic.

Experts say rule-defying behaviour by rule-makers undermines important messaging

Protesters hold placards in London's Parliament Square on Wednesday as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attended the weekly Prime Minister's Questions session in Parliament — the same day he apologized in the wake of revelations about a garden party held at Downing Street in May 2020 amid strict pandemic restrictions on social gatherings. (Frank Augstein/The Associated Press)

It's a form of déjà vu for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and it involves government staffers, pandemic-era social gatherings and subsequent apologies.

Johnson offered one such apology this past Wednesday for attending a BYOB garden party in May 2020 involving dozens of Downing Street staff, held in contravention of COVID-19 restrictions that Britons were supposed to be following at the time.

He acknowledged public "rage" over the fact that "the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules."

And yet by Friday, Johnson's office offered a separate apology over a pair of parties held by Downing Street staff on the eve of Prince Philip's funeral last April — a time when pandemic restrictions prompted the Queen to sit alone in her grief in St. George's Chapel the following day.

Experts say this kind of contradictory, rule-defying behaviour by rule-makers undermines key pandemic messaging and does little to build trust with the people paying attention to what their leaders say and do.

Stated simply, leaders who act against the rules they're recommending "tend to lose credibility amongst people," said Gayathri Sivakumar, an associate professor in the department of journalism and media communication at Colorado State University.

WATCH | Apology from Downing Street: 

Downing Street apologizes for parties held on eve of Prince Philip's funeral

1 year ago
Duration 2:09
10 Downing Street has apologized to Queen Elizabeth II for hosting two parties on the eve of Prince Philip's funeral — held while stringent COVID-19 restrictions were in place.

It's not just a British thing

Of course, it's not just in Britain where these types of stories have made headlines during the pandemic.

In October 2020, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and his family cut short a vacation to Greece, after coming under criticism for going abroad at a time when the Dutch people were being asked to stay home.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, shown in February 2021, found himself in a controversy after attending a dinner at a three-star Michelin restaurant in November 2020 — at a time when he'd been urging his fellow Californians to stay home as much as possible. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

The following month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom faced criticism for going to a birthday dinner at a three-star Michelin restaurant at a time when state residents were being urged not to gather with people from outside their households. Anger over pandemic restrictions was a factor in an effort to recall Newsom, but the governor held onto his job.

More recently, The Associated Press reported that a group of senior Hong Kong officials offered apologies after attending a large birthday party that led to scores of guests having to quarantine after exposure to a person who tested positive for COVID-19. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said she was "disappointed" and that it's incumbent upon officials "to set a good example and avoid attending private gatherings that may pose a major hazard."

The exterior of a COVID-19 testing centre at Hong Kong International Airport on Jan. 11. A group of senior Hong Kong officials offered apologies earlier this month after attending a large birthday party that resulted in scores of guests needing to quarantine due to a possible COVID-19 exposure. (Lam Yik/Reuters)

Closer to home, Canada has seen some of its own political leaders doing what they wanted, not as they urged others to do in the name of public health.

The list includes premiers going places they told others not to and holding gatherings that were frowned upon under the circumstances, as well as politicians taking trips outside of Canada in the middle of the ongoing global health emergency. As recently as last month, a Liberal MP was removed from parliamentary committee duties after taking a non-essential trip outside the country.

'One bad apple can sour a bunch'

Clifton van der Linden, an assistant professor of political science at McMaster University in Hamilton, said the issues that are entangled with how the public views politicians who flout the rules are "not something ... unique to the COVID-19 pandemic."

But he said the pandemic has brought into focus the kinds of sacrifices that people are being asked to make, which contrasts with the behaviour making the wrong kinds of headlines for some politicians.

More broadly, van der Linden said research suggests that such behaviour serves to deepen cynicism about government among voters.

Clifton van der Linden, an assistant professor of political science at McMaster University in Hamilton, says the pandemic has brought into focus the kinds of sacrifices that people are being asked to make. (Submitted by Clifton van der Linden)

Monica Schoch-Spana, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, points out that these kinds of cases may draw media attention, but they shift the focus away from the fact that the majority of leaders are doing their best to do the right thing.

Schoch-Spana, who has worked in public health emergency management for more than two decades, said she fears that the repeated coverage of such stories may potentially be "reinforcing people's lack of trust in government."

Van der Linden agreed that "one bad apple can sour a bunch" in the minds of some voters.

Public trust at risk of being damaged

Maya Goldenberg, an associate professor of philosophy at Ontario's University of Guelph who studies vaccine hesitancy, said such erosion of trust is a problem for people trying to lead the way out of a pandemic.

"The leadership in this pandemic, both politicians and scientists, needs a lot of public buy-in to successfully implement pandemic containment measures," she said in an email.

"When the leadership act as if the rules don't apply to them, they damage public trust in the leadership — and by doing that, they undermine their own ability to lead effectively," Goldenberg said.

Monica Schoch-Spana, a senior scholar at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says the repeated media coverage of politicians breaking the rules may have an unintended consequence of reinforcing people's lack of trust in government. (Submitted by Monica Schoch-Spana)

Schoch-Spana said people are certainly paying attention to leaders in the pandemic — and those figures can help convey key messages to the public, particularly when they are following the rules.

But she said the stories about leaders who aren't abiding by the rules are becoming fodder "for a proxy war for people in how they feel about politicians and governments more generally."

Alan Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, said a lot of the reasons people choose to follow or not follow such protocols are deeply embedded in their own identity and values.

"My guess is that this is the kind of thing that will be cited by people who are not complying with restrictions, but most of whom perhaps would not have followed the restrictions," he said.

Apologies not enough

Some leaders have offered apologies in the wake of COVID-era controversies — but that's more of a media-relations strategy than a coherent pandemic leadership strategy.

"It is stunning to watch so many politicians and a few scientific advisers flout the rules and then think an apology is enough to restore their credibility with the public," Goldenberg said.

Maya Goldenberg is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph who studies vaccine hesitancy. (Submitted by Maya Goldenberg)

Colorado State's Sivakumar said one strategy might be for leaders to pair an apology with a reiteration of why restrictions are in place, even if "the damage is done" at that point.

"It would take coverage of the leader following COVID-related rules in the later date consistently to undo the damage a bit," she said.

Schoch-Spana said it appears the leaders finding themselves in compromising situations are getting communications advice to make these apologies, but they need to do more.

"I think that these leaders who are caught in this misbehaviour have an obligation to take the moment even further, to get beyond the formulaic apology and reflect back how hard it is, how hard the COVID-19 conditions are for people," she said.