It is not just the Chinese government that mistrusts its people and thinks they cannot handle the truth. Today, it transpired that even the UK government fears public scrutiny and prefers to cloak its knowledge and actions with a shroud of mystery – or, somewhat less poetically, employ a black marker pen to blot out key parts of documents drawn up by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage).
Interestingly, the behavioural scientists of the Sage subcommittee that in early April advised the cabinet on the likely public response to the lockdown measures under consideration noted that only the critical parts of their report had been heavily redacted. At least one of the advisers considers stepping down in protest against the government’s secretive approach that, he fears, may undermine public trust.
The collective of psychologists, epidemiologists, and anthropologists had warned the cabinet that the proposed lockdown measures, including stiff penalties for those failing to abide by them, could cause a public backlash. A suggestion to use smartphones to track people’s movements was also rejected by the subcommittee.
Though the government did listen to the scientists and toned down most of the draconian proposals submitted to the subcommittee, the cabinet apparently does not want the public to know how far it was prepared to go in restricting movement.
The scientists deplore the UK government’s unwillingness to accept criticism. This bespeaks of a misplaced lack in self-confidence. Most people would readily agree that the scope of the pandemic justifies some early mistakes. Going into the crisis, few within government had any experience in handling a pandemic. There was no tried and tested protocol to fall back on and a response had to be found quickly as the outbreak unfolded.
That the government of China does not believe in transparency is a given, considering its now resurfaced communist nature. Elsewhere, and particularly in Europe, one would hope that those elected to rule over us know plenty better. In the UK, now the epicentre of the pandemic in Europe, that seems not the case.
When asking a great sacrifice in the name of a common good, most will immediately respond positively. Asking is always better than demanding. Now more than ever before in living memory, people need to be able to trust their government and believe it is honest and forthright in all dealings. Transparency is without doubt the greatest weapon in the fight against the novel virus. Without it, the battle is lost. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a victim of covid-19, should know this better than most.