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Paul Vallely: Lies and ineptitude both erode trust

09 October 2020

It is a slippery slope from incompetence to deception, says Paul Vallely


The NHS Test and Trace app. Its computer systems are not compatible with those used by Public Health England

The NHS Test and Trace app. Its computer systems are not compatible with those used by Public Health England

THE Government will finally have an effective test-and-trace testing system in place by the end of October, ministers reiterated this week. A poll showed that 77 per cent of people don’t believe them.

What’s new about that? For years, polls have shown that the public do not trust politicians. But something new is abroad. That was obvious from the public reaction to President Trump’s initial tweet that he had tested positive for Covid-19.

An extraordinarily large number of people simply refused to believe it. It was a political ploy, an attempt to avoid a second debate, a ruse to drive up his flagging approval ratings. President Trump, of course, is a known liar. The Atlantic magazine this week listed no fewer than 50 lies that he has told about the coronavirus. So, now some people do not believe the US President even when he tells the truth.

Confucius famously said that three things were needed for government: weapons, food, and trust. If the first two went, a ruler might still survive if he could hold on to the last. But there are various levels of trust, we now see. There is trust in the Government’s competence, and there is trust in its honesty and integrity.

This week’s latest débâcle in the Government’s response to the pandemic pertains to the former. It managed to “lose” 16,000 people who had been tested positive for the virus — failing to tell an estimated 50,000 individuals who had been in contact with them. The problem was caused by using 13-year-old software. The Government has known of the problem since July, but new software is not coming for months.

The computer systems of NHS Test and Trace are not compatible with those used by Public Health England, because ministers insisted on setting up a new centralised testing system rather than utilise the expertise of local authorities. And they outsourced vital work to private-sector companies with no experience of the task for which they are being paid millions by the taxpayer.

President Trump goes beyond incompetence into the world of deception. Sadly, this is more than mere self-delusion, as is shown by his relentless campaign against postal voting. Independent technology experts have repeatedly shown that there is very little evidence of any kind of fraud in the system that the Americans call mail-in voting.

Despite this, President Trump — who himself votes by post — has continued to peddle misinformation on the subject, to lay the ground for him to challenge the result of next month’s presidential election when the postal votes come in. The Trump strategy appears to be to destroy trust in facts — which he brands as “fake news” — so that he can continue his brazen lies with impunity.

At present, the Johnson government seems to be guilty more of incompetence than of deception. But it is a slippery slope, as Dominic Cummings’s trip to Barnard Castle showed. Deceivers, the philosopher Onora O’Neill says, do not treat others as moral equals: they exempt themselves from obligations that they rely on others to live up to.

Trust is quickly destroyed. Rebuilding it is a long and slow business. The first step in that is for those whom we ought to trust to show that they are trustworthy.

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