26 August 2022

More evidence – as if it were needed – that ministers terrified the public into complying with lockdown


When one of the highest ministers in the land admits the British public was deliberately ‘scared witless’ by the Government, it’s time to face the music. And what depressing music – its drumbeat was fear and the cadence was gloomy.

In an interview in The Spectator, Rishi Sunak has revealed that the Government used targeted messaging to frighten the public and stifle dissent. This is no surprise to me, because advisors to the government broke cover to share their concerns about nudge and fear-mongering for my book A State of Fear. Simon Ruda, one of the founders of the Nudge Unit reflected in Unherd that ‘the most egregious and far-reaching mistake made in responding to the pandemic has been the level of fear willingly conveyed on the public’. The recommendation to ‘raise the level of personal threat among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging’ was even minuted by SPI-B in March 2020.

Sunak explains that one of his big concerns about fear was that it can have long-lasting effects. This is known to disaster planners: fear makes recovery harder. We can still see the effects of it now, in the trigger happy calls for masks or lockdowns whenever case rates go up. He singled out the gruesome posters showing Covid patients on ventilators, but fear was amplified and weaponised in many more ways. Big scary numbers were cherry-picked from modelling, death dashboards were published daily (oddly not deployed for our current excess death problem), press briefings were delivered war-footing style, and nearly £1bn of taxpayers’ money has been spent on advertising campaigns by the Government in the three years since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, much of it on the Covid response.

It’s a case of better late than never, and I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents, etc, etc, but what a shame Sunak did not speak up earlier. Whatever manoeuvres he says he performed behind the scenes to argue against scaring the public and extending lockdowns, it would appear that ultimately he put the protection of his career and the reputation of Number 10 above the nation. One might cynically deduce that this late confessional is currency in the leadership bid.

Those who raised heads above the parapet understood the consequences only too well. If you shared concerns about the effectiveness of lockdowns, called for cost benefit analysis to be published, or argued against the heavy-handed nudging and fear-mongering, you were vilified. I was called a ‘covidiot’ in one of the country’s newspapers of record, The Times, in a review of my book. Yesterday The Times reported uncritically on Rishi Sunak’s claims. Times change.

The book review did inadvertently pick up on a vital point: ‘So huge and so clever was this so-called psyop that most of us had no idea it was happening.’ The truth is, that at the time, most people did have no idea it was happening. It was relatively easy to manipulate and frighten people into complying with the loss of freedoms. So, could it happen again?

If you concede that a measure like lockdown is acceptable for one crisis, will it be acceptable for another crisis in the future? What about climate change? Or a run on the banks? And if you concede it is justifiable to use nudge and fear-mongering to emotionally kettle the population, will you justify it again?

I’m afraid this government is heavy-handedly using behavioural science and propaganda to soften people up for net zero policies. Boris Johnson promised in October 2021 that we could be greener without a hair shirt in sight. This winter we will be buried under hair shirts, and they’ll be all we have for warmth. Colour-coded weather warnings ritualise observance and anxiety about climate change. Nadhim Zahawi described education as a ‘weapon’ against climate change. And an astonishing report published by the Nudge Unit and broadcaster Sky recommended that TV can be used to nudge us towards carbon net zero, by using news segments, storylines in drama, children’s programming and even product placement. And if you want to question any of this? Well, yesterday’s Covid denier is today’s climate denier.

Nobody likes to think they can be manipulated, let alone that they have been. Some people still don’t see it. Well, it’s time to take your fingers out of your ears, face the music and demand no encore. Sunak’s interview highlights how vital it is that root out the idea that it is in any way acceptable for a government to nudge and frighten the people it serves. Fear is no way to run a country.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Laura Dodsworth is a writer, photographer and author of A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.