Matt Hancock delivering a press briefing
Health Secretary Matt Hancock speaking at the first digital Covid-19 Press Conference, March 2020. Picture by Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street.

Dr Peter Kerr, Associate Professor in politics in the Department of Political Science and International Studies (POLSIS), has been awarded the British Journal of Politics and International Relations’ John Peterson Best Paper Prize, 2022, for his co-authored paper ‘Guided by the science’: (De)politicising the UK government’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

The paper, co-authored with Steve Kettell, University of Warwick, provides a study of the UK government’s attempts to shift blame and take credit for their actions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through a detailed analysis of the government’s daily press briefings over a 2-month period between 16 March and 16 May 2020, the paper highlights four main ‘narratives’ that were used by Ministers to politicise a number of claimed ‘successes’ and/or depoliticise a string of policy ‘failures’.

The authors show that one of the central narratives used by Ministers was the claim that the government was being ‘Guided by the Science’. This ‘depoliticising’ story enabled Ministers to be shielded, to some extent, from blame, for the relatively high rate of fatalities the UK experienced during the earliest months of the pandemic.

The study highlights a government being forced to make a series of key decisions in the midst of a ‘real time’, rapidly changing crisis moment, with relatively limited information on the best decisions to take. In the midst of such a crisis, Ministers were forced to, not only manage the crisis itself, but also manage public perceptions of their management of the crisis. This involved some deft ‘statecraft’ on the part of Ministers as they were forced to ‘pass the ball of responsibility between various groups of actors in order to rapidly and continually shift the balance between avoiding blame and taking credit’.

The prize was independently judged by three members of BJPIR’s International Advisory Board, Dr Lynn Bennie (University of Aberdeen), Professor Sara Davies (Griffith University) and Professor Roger Awan-Scully (Hong Kong Baptist University). Explaining their decision, the judges said:

"The article is a significant addition to the literature on theories and approaches to depoliticization, offering a detailed analysis of the UK government’s daily briefings early in the covid pandemic. The paper is theoretically and empirically strong, reporting the results of an impressive qualitative content analysis of the discourse employed during media briefings. It makes many contributions to our understanding of how and when governments take responsibility for their actions. More specifically, the article develops the idea of depoliticization within the context of short-term decision-making at a time of national crisis. The analysis reveals a constant shifting of the narrative, from accounts of government agency and action to those emphasising reliance on expert opinion. This is described as the government being able to ‘simultaneously own and disown their own actions’. In other words, the discourse both politicised and depoliticised. The article tells an important story and is fascinating to read."

Steve and I are over the moon at the news that our paper won. It’s a lovely honour. The journal editors have organised a special panel at next year’s Political Studies Association Annual Conference in Glasgow to discuss our paper, so we’re very grateful for that and excited at the prospect. We’re also hugely thankful to the competition judges.

Peter Kerr

Peter Kerr and his co-author Steve Kettell have collaborated on various past research projects. They are also the founders of the journal British Politics which has been housed in POLSIS since 2005.