by Amy Jones
Tuesday, 6
April 2021
Debate
08:15

The Government’s paternalism is eroding public trust

Making a habit of withholding information will have damaging consequences
by Amy Jones
The point of healthcare communication is to inform and empower — not obfuscate and confuse. Credit: Getty

There are no certainties in life. Which is why it may initially be tempting to forgive Boris Johnson’s noncommittal answer last week when he was asked if two vaccinated people could meet indoors. He responded that they couldn’t, as vaccines “are not giving 100% protection”.

Technically, this may be true — very little in life is 100% guaranteed — but coming against the backdrop of increasing disquietude in the form of vaccine passports, EU indecisiveness over the Astra-Zeneca jab, and the ever present churn of conspiracy theories, it was hardly a reassuring answer. How will that convince the sceptical and the hesitant to roll up their sleeves?

Nor did it acknowledge the fact that many of the government plans to exit lockdown and end restrictions will soon be reliant upon the assumption that vaccinated people are indeed “safe”. It also contradicted the advice of the American Center for Disease Control, an organisation that, for once, has been far more pragmatic on this issue, advising that yes, two vaccinated people can meet indoors.

Perhaps it was an answer borne of political expediency, a desire not to undermine current restrictions, and memories of backtracking over Christmas. But more than that, it is a perfect example of political healthcare communication over the last 12 months.

The point of healthcare communication should be to inform and empower, but too often the way information has been conveyed by politicians during this pandemic has resulted in neither. Instead we have witnessed ministers make blanket, vague statements, which often border on misleading. It is difficult to tell if this is due to a failure to understand the science on their part, reservations about the ability of the public to understand complexity, or a habit stemming from slogan-based political soundbites. Clearly it also results from a belief that the best way to ensure public compliance is paternalistically: to carefully limit the information given.

The combined effect is entirely counterproductive. Few will forget, for example, Nadine Dorries’ famous assertion that there is “no such thing as herd immunity”, which, whilst written at a time before we had vaccines for Covid, was still fundamentally incorrect.

It is difficult to predict the long-term effect on the public of this habit of withholding information and being unduly pessimistic about interventions. Whilst this may have aided compliance, in the longer term it will surely result in eroded public trust and enable conspiracy theories to better circulate in the vacuum. In medicine we were supposed to have learned long ago that this form of paternalism ended up harming more than it helped. It is time for politicians and “public health practitioners” to recognise this too.

Amy Jones is an anonymous doctor working in the NHS, who has a background in Philosophy & Bioethics. You can follow her on Twitter at @skepticalzebra

Join the discussion


  • It is difficult to predict the long-term effect on the public of this habit of withholding information and being unduly pessimistic about interventions.
    Is it difficult? I’d say the opposite is true. People see govt as something between a punchline and a force for harming those who fund it. We’ve had a year now to assess the efficacy of the steps taken. We’ve had a year now to assess the results and the damage caused by those steps.

  • Petition: I am trying to set up a reverse/contrasting petition to the existing one: ‘Introduce Vaccination passports for International travel’. To my understanding it is vital as no other time before to speak up, for those who believe in freedom, democracy, free will and choice, and the values of western culture. For all we have been experiencing lately, though there is no end and no light to be seen at the end of the tunnel. We are into the tunnel with no return. My petition is: ‘Do not Introduce Vaccine or other Medical passports for International travel’. If anyone wishes to help, please click the link below. Initially required 5 supporters, then 21 signatures and they will look at it and decide to publish it or not. Personally, I have already signed two petitions. 1. Do not roll out covid-19 vaccine passports (I suppose that refers to pubs, theatres etc) and 2. Repeal corona virus act and end all covid-19 restrictions. Considering those two petitions have been accepted and please have a look to the numbers online. For example ‘Do not roll out covid-19 vaccine passports’ has accumulated 331,272 for now, whereas the opposite ‘Roll out covid-19 vaccine passports’ had about 5,700.. last time I visited the page, but I cannot find it right now (?).. However, I read recently that Boris said: definitely going to be a world in which international travel will use vaccine passports… What is wrong with all of them? Do politicians personify their total failure with sanity? Please support if you feel that we must make our voices taken seriously this time. I am afraid all politicians everywhere working extremely hard and aiming: to end democracy and freedom by the means of surrendering our sensitive personal data, our private, personal, sacred bodies to them indefinitely. And the parallel defeat, not too clear right now, of denouncing our own uniqueness of being creative persons and the ownership of a lifetime as meaningless and unworthy. .. I hope the link works.. https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/581812/sponsors/new?token=iV4sLxnpE-we0y88vKma

  • Thank you too, what is good for me it might be horrible for someone else. I think we cannot decide for others life, well-being, choices, and the risks they might want to take, and where they want to go. But do you believe a certificate, or under-skin chip etc could ever protect us from anything? The same happened with the cameras, supposedly to prevent the bad guys and find more terrorists etc.. but what has actually happened is that we are the terrorists because we are being watched 24/7, how many thieves, criminals and terrorists have you seen around? and how many were prevented from acts of violence because of the cameras?.. I hope you realize when they say, controlling the virus, they mean us… If we go this way, far more horrific terms awaiting upon our lives around the corner.. this is not at all a decision for covid.. because we do not even know if there has been a pandemic at all.. Why? 1. Introducing totally unreliable tests everywhere possible, to make up numbers so as to keep going with the scary narrative and convince as many for temporarily approved vaccines that None has taken responsibly of, other the one who offers their arms to be injected.. 2. there have been no autopsies/necropsies anywhere in the world, of the so called dead with/from covid.. is this not blatantly unscientific and misleading? Though they could have a few here and there.. 3. if you visit WhO website it is stated 2million++ deaths Reported.. why? because nobody is able to Confirm those are indeed dead from/with covid without autopsy.. The more we play this game the weaker and more depressed we become.

  • To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, become a registered user.

    It's simple, quick and free.

    Sign me up