Pandemic ethics public dialogue launch: why we did it, what we learned, and what we plan to do next.

This week sees the publication of a report detailing a public dialogue which explored the ethical values underlying people’s responses to the covid-19 pandemic. The report was commissioned by the UK Pandemic Ethics Accelerator, and conducted by Hopkins Van Mil. Whilst much of the work of the Accelerator’s public values, transparency and governance workstream has been dedicated to monitoring and reflecting on public engagement relating to the pandemic, it was always our intention to conduct some ourselves. We are extremely grateful to Hopkins Van Mil’s expertise in leading this dialogue, which will inform the future work of the Accelerator.

When planning this public engagement work, we made a number of explicit methodological decisions, recognising that participatory activities during the pandemic have been most effective when the organisers have been conscious about how their methods of engagement are chosen to fulfil their objectives. We reflected that many of the dialogic and deliberative events conducted in the UK during the pandemic – for example the #Lockdowndebate on contact tracing and the Citizens’ Assembly on Bristol’s covid-19 recovery – had a narrow, directed focus on a single issue or region. And whilst the topics of dialogue had clear ethical significance, public values were not the explicit focus of the events.

Our goals were different: we wanted to give an open forum to ordinary members of the public to directly consider what they thought were the key ethical issues arising from the pandemic and what values they thought should guide the covid recovery. We did this because we wanted not only to uncover for policymakers and others the values that are important to members of the public, but also to use these values to guide the future work of the workstream. Whilst recognising that the framing of the event was under our control as organisers and funders, and that the focus of the event could therefore never be wholly participant led, we wished to give as much latitude as possible for those engaged in discussion to decide what they thought was of greatest ethical importance.

One key theme that participants identified as particularly important was trust and trustworthiness. This theme cut across a number of areas. A major concern was trust in government, both to make the right decisions and communicate them clearly, with participants reflecting that well-publicised examples of hypocrisy from prominent government figures had undermined trust in the covid-19 response. Trust or mistrust in vaccination was identified as a potential dividing line in society, particularly as governments decide whether to introduce more expansive vaccine mandates. Participants views on what they considered to be trusted sources of information varied, with a diverse range of opinions on matters ranging from government ‘cover ups’ to the use of social media to spread misinformation. There were connections drawn between the concept of trust and the related concepts of transparency and accountability.

Of particular value to us as researchers were the suggestions that participants made for the future work of the Accelerator. One recommendation was for work explicitly focussed on the ethics of trust: ‘who is more or less trusted, what constitutes trusted behaviour, what would a transparent government be doing in a pandemic?’ The public values, transparency and governance workstream now intends to complete a rapid ethics review on the topic of trust and trustworthiness of governance during the pandemic, in response to the recommendations of dialogue participants. We wish to thank everyone who took part for their thoughtful, insightful, and deeply helpful contributions to the mission of the accelerator.