Interpreting confusion

Can people insist on being confused? I am no behavioural scientist but I have been struck by the way many people in the UK respond to the rules/advice for combatting Covid-19 with “I am confused” or “I don’t understand”. These may be British/English euphemisms for “I disagree” or even “I don’t trust you”. The latter is particularly important because in a representative democracy the deal is that politicians are given decision-making powers and have time and resources to exercise them that are largely unavailable to most people. So if trust goes then there is a high risk of non-compliance. The blurring of the lines between law and guidance has probably been a genuine source of confusion.

Meanwhile the very notion of different rules applying in different areas is difficult for people to get their heads round in this highly centralised state. We have been brought up to see disproportionate power for central government as part of the natural order of things – something Liberals have fought against for many decades. Even in the non-English nations of the UK devolution has proceeded very slowly and current schemes for devolution in England look more like an enhanced rate support grant than a serious shift of power to the regions. Thus in our political culture closing the Welsh border for legitimate reasons seems truly shocking. So whatever slogans the Government comes up with (reflecting the Prime Minister’s own confusion between fighting an election and running the country) people will continue to say that they don’t understand.

That excess of power residing with central government can seem very attractive to certain kinds of politicians. They are very happy to use the dreadful metaphor of crown prerogative in sweeping aside opposition or accountability. We do have a ceremonial monarchy but the Queen’s job is to rubber stamp Government decisions and keep a straight face while announcing its programme in the gracious speech.

Lurking behind the possible sources of confusion outlined above there appears to be something even more sinister. What if the people exercising pseudo-monarchical power, based at the heart of government, have a vested interest in confusion? Disruption and distraction seem to be essential tools in the box of tricks utilised by today’s right wing nationalist politicians and their mentors. Before we decline into a wild west economy and an even more divided society, will Alan Bennett be writing the Madness of King Dom?

* Geoff Reid is a retired Methodist minister and represented Eccleshill on Bradford City Council for twelve years

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This entry was posted in News.


  • Human beings are not very good at handling simplicity when they don’t like the outcome. The virus is transmitted when someone inhales virus laden air exhaled by by an infected person close by. It is as simple as that. Simple precautions should reduce the transmission rate to a sustainable level but for a variety of reasons, humans are incapable of the self discipline required to achieve this.

    The government has a duty to safeguard its citizens and it has a duty to safeguard the economy. These become mutually exclusive when the virus transmission lurches from one extreme to another. Now the politicians and public cannot agree on anything.

    Human beings can never handle such a virus. Let us hope for a successful vaccine.

  • It is not at all difficult to understand the restrictions if one has access to the government or NHS, the current guidance is also reproduced in most of the national press and discussed ad nauseum by BBC and Sky rolling news.
    What may lead to some confusion is the fact that the media and BBC seem to delight in finding a disenting voice, or ‘rent a gob’ to undermine government guidance as soon as it has been announced. I don’t think the media come out of this with any great merit in the reporting on COVID. I am surprised that the chief medical officer and chief science officer have been able to tolerate some of the repeated crass questions from some parts of the media without either walking out or questioning whether the reporter has the necessary academic understanding to attend the various briefings.

  • Barry Lofty 18th Oct '20 - 1:39pm

    Personally I do not trust a word that splutters out of the mouth of blustering Boris or his minders,we will continue to do what feels best for ourselves and our family and hope it is enough to see us through this horrible pandemic as depressing as the immediate future seems to be.

  • Innocent Bystander 18th Oct '20 - 1:58pm

    I am confused (!) over the point of this offering.
    It seems to be that Hancock and Johnson are giving the impression of being clueless, rudderless and incompetent without any trace of the fundamental qualities of leadership – deliberately!!??
    There is another possibility.

  • Thank you, Mr Lofty. You illustrate my point perfectly.

  • Barry Lofty 18th Oct '20 - 2:44pm

    I must emphasise that we do follow all the sensible advice such as social distancing, masks etc etc

  • A country like North Korea or China may be able to control the virus by controlling the people, but countries like ours soon lose the ability to maintain a coherent policy. I think that is just a fact of life. Factors such as death rates will have a temporary influence but a large disparate population soon leads to a type of chaos.

    Any government in this situation can only muddle along because not reacting to the greatest need of the moment is not an option.

  • Sue Sutherland 18th Oct '20 - 4:36pm

    It’s not that people don’t understand what they should be doing, it’s that they don’t understand the reasoning behind the rules, especially when meeting up with family is ruled out but sitting in a restaurant with a bunch of strangers is positively encouraged.

  • nvelope2003 18th Oct '20 - 4:51pm

    Sue Sutherland: Only because sitting in a restaurant is good for business and sitting at home is not.

  • @Sue – I understand that relatives from different households meeting in someone’s home can give a very high transmission rate. Clearly, they relax the rules, even if they don’t mean to. In a restaurant, the staff enforce the rules which will include all the hygiene precautions before and after the meal such as cleaning all surfaces with a suitable biocide.

    It comes down to human nature and the fact that a very infectious pathogen will exploit any transmission path that it finds.

  • John Marriott 18th Oct '20 - 6:19pm

    If you want to see an example of unctuous mendacity you need to go no further than watch Andrews Marr’s interview with a Michael Gove on his eponymous show this morning.

  • An important reason that people say that they do not understand the rules is that they are. Incomprehensible.
    There are examples of the prime minister getting -them wrong very publicly.
    One of the main reasons for this is the lack of transparency in the decision making process in this country.
    In fact from my limited observations people Have changed their behaviour in spite of not because of the government’s decisions or more usually lack of them.
    What is a particular problem is that there is a lack of understanding of what science is. Science is an evidence based activity, and that presupposes an openness about what the evidence is. The fact that someone is a scientist does not make things they say science.

  • Peter Hirst 19th Oct '20 - 4:40pm

    To many confusion is an active process to avoid deciding on issues or to allow yourself to do something you suspect you shouldn’t. Confusion is good if it leads to greater clarity. Better to be confused than to be led. Confusion at other times is the result of the confuser’s actions and words.

  • Tony Greaves 19th Oct '20 - 5:49pm

    Well I have all the regulations in front of me and much of the guidance and I have taken part in a load of debates on them in Parliament and I am still confused! I ask Ministers questions and get no proper answers. One afternoon we even spent 1½ hours debating regulations that (next day) we discovered had already been revoked. Just who is confused? And when the “rules” in a particular area change by the week (or even by the day last week!) is it any surprise that people are confused? Or just, after months of lockdowns that seem to be never-ending, just fed up.

  • Nigel Jones 19th Oct '20 - 9:06pm

    At one of our local community centres, the leader of a group that hires it has difficulty understanding the rules because of changes. Those of us on the committee feel we understand, for example, that when a new rule is introduced it supercedes the previous ones and we have told her what the new rule is. However, the leader of the group will not believe us and is insisting that a council lawyer should state clearly and in detail what the new situation is. Lack of trust all round.

  • Matt (Bristol) 20th Oct '20 - 2:25pm

    The regulations are frustratingly premised and drafted in many points of detail, but one thing the English (particularly the English) political psyche seems to find most confusing is something the Lib Dems should worry about: the principle of federalism, in that it is OK for different rules to exist in different areas (within negotiated norms, which is where there is some issue here).

    I view the COVID crisis as the stiffest, harshest test of many of the reforms of the last 20 years — Labour’s devolution reforms, the coalition Health and Social Care reforms and Public health bodge-up, the ongoing issues with local government funding, the Coalition era single-mayor devolution settlement in England.

    All of these are being tested in the fire in fierce public scrutiny. Few of these reforms were fully understood at the time or had a majority of the country in favour. (The devolution settlements in NI, Scotland and Wales are the exception, but they were of course never tested in the court of English public opinion).

    I do find it mildly (ironically?) amusing that English people who have probably had no interest in NI or Scotland for years (and in some cases may have expressed a rhetorical belief that NI and Scotland, in particular, would be better off leaving the UK and taking their problems with them), like to use the existence of different rules in these countries as a stick to beat the Covid rules with.

    Given both these nations have had divergent legal settlements for centuries, divergent policing and NHS structures, it is hard to see how, even before devolution, Covid rules would be identical or identically enforced. But that’s an inconvenient fact.

  • Matt (Bristol) 20th Oct '20 - 2:29pm

    I do agree that ‘I am still confused’ often means ‘I cannot commit to accepting what you just said’ or ‘I have a pre-existing set of assumptions I cannot let go of by agreeing with you’.

    But anyone who has for eg tried to work out whether a church hall is governed by the govt guidance for churches, for village halls, or for the individual activities carried out in it (which in the case of gymn activities will be found in the guidance for gymns and sports clubs), will agree that the way the guidance is drafted and communicated IS confusing.

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