WESTMINSTER is promoting a “culture of blame” that threatens to undermine the UK’s nations' coronavirus response, a leading expert has said.

Speaking to The National, Independent Sage’s Stephen Reicher said Westminster had pushed policies such as getting back in the office and eating out “to help out” and then “turned around and told [people] off for doing so”.

Independent Sage is a group of experts set up in May by Sir David King, a former government chief scientific adviser, in response to claims that Westminster’s science was subject to “dangerous” political interference.

Reicher, who is one of the 13 scientists in the group, also said governments must choose between children’s education and “adults getting a drink” as the coronavirus crisis sits “on a knife edge”, and called for practical support to be put in place for those self-isolating.

Culture of blame

The behavioural psychologist argued that any increase in Covid cases was down to poor government policy and communication, rather than poor adherence on the public’s side.

He said figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) yesterday showed “that infections are spiking not so much because the public are behaving badly but because they are following bad policy set by the government”.

Reicher said the English Government especially had “encouraged people to go to work and to restaurants and then turned around and told them off for doing so”.

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“If you want people to take responsibility you have to take your own responsibility.”

On Twitter, the professor of social psychology added: “In sum, the numbers getting exposed to infection because they are doing what the Government is telling them to do vastly outweighs the number being exposed by breaking Covid restrictions.

“And yet the Government blames the public for the situation we are now in.”

Reicher went on: “When you have some extreme event and people all have the same experience and the same fears and threats, that helps create a shared identity. People are then prepared to make sacrifices for the community.

“That is the root of the resilience that will get us through this [and] it is through a mutual sense of support that we have that resilience.

“The whole culture of blame is so dangerous. It aims to set us against each other.”

He said this was one thing which set the Scottish and UK Government responses, which had been “very different indeed” in terms of strategy and tone, apart.

He went on: “You see the difference in the way in which the First Minister makes clear that we all have responsibilities - this is about everyone taking their responsibilities seriously.

“The tone and the message [in Scotland] is more about a partnership.

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“I think there has begun to be a culture of blame again, and there’s a contrast between the politicians in England and in Scotland.

“When infections were increasing there began to be the notion that young people were to blame for having parties, but Nicola Sturgeon was very clear. She said that it wasn’t that they had done anything wrong, but that they are more likely to be exposed.”

Reicher said this was because, in general, younger people have more public-facing jobs, use public transport more, and often live in shared accommodation.

The National:

“The refusal of a culture of blame [from the First Minister] was very powerful.”

He said that neither the English nor Scottish Government had been perfect, and the media had also not helped with “spectacle stories” about people breaking lockdown, which began to “promote the culture of blame”.

Reicher also stressed that even a vaccine is not a “magic bullet” that will end the pandemic, adding: “The more stringent we are in the short term the less it [Covid-19] will be around in the long term.

“If we take the right measures right now then that can make a big difference.”

Education vs recreation

Highlighting how it was impossible to socially distance in schools, and remote learning only increases inequality as poorer families struggle more with home-schooling, Reicher asked: “What’s more important: is it the adults getting a drink or the children an education?”

“There are tough choices, but if we don’t make them then they will be taken out of our hands,” he went on.

“If we do nothing then we will slither back down into full lockdown. We need to make these choices and we need to make them quickly.”

Self-isolation support

The St Andrews professor also called for Westminster to look at providing furlough-like support for those who are self-isolating.

“Most people are adhering quite well [to the coronavirus regulations]. The one exception is one when you look at self-isolation,” he said.

“The [Test and Protect] system you have got is pointless unless people are self-isolating.

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“As a matter of urgency I think we should be giving financial support to people if they have to self-isolate. We have got to make it practically possible for them to self-isolate.”

He said that adherence to the regulations had been much higher among the rich than the poor, which he said was down to practicalities of life, not individual willingness or strength.

“Supporting people with warm words is great and important but supporting people in practical terms if you want people to do the right thing - a lot of the time people want to do the right thing, but it isn’t practically possible.

“The Government must help to do the things that they need, and want, to do.”

The UK Treasury has been contacted for comment.