6 March 2023

The Lockdown Files are a warning to never let government ‘scare the pants’ off us again


Sanobar and her son lived in a single room accommodation. The nine-year-old boy was so terrified of coronavirus that he wouldn’t go to school during lockdown, despite being entitled to as a vulnerable child. In fact, he would not leave the ‘four wall boundary’ for weeks and barely left the bed on which he slept, ate and did homework. At the age of nine he took an overdose to escape the fear.

Jane told me that when lockdown started she felt a ‘cloak of anxiety’ settle on her shoulders. She watched the Downing Street briefings and read the news every day. As she said, ‘gruesome headlines came thick and fast’. She would wake up every day trembling from head to foot with anxiety attacks. Eventually she needed medication to cope with anxiety induced by the fear-mongering.

Susan, 15, started self-harming. Rosie, 13, developed panic attacks. Jimmy’s mother found him after he made an attempt on his life. Men told me about OCDs, anxiety, agoraphobia and PTSD. The rise in alcohol-related deaths, drugs relapses and Covid Anxiety Syndrome have been well-documented.

These are just some examples of the hidden victims of the pandemic I encountered while researching my book A State of Fear. Their stories reveal the human cost of the Government’s use of propaganda, behavioural psychology and weaponisation of fear during the pandemic, conclusively exposed in The Telegraph’s Lockdown Files. Yet there are still those who choose not to see it.

No one likes to believe they can be manipulated, let alone that they have been manipulated. It’s easier to believe that un-evidenced (and sometimes pointless) measures like wearing masks, standing on spaced dots, and staying at home for months were necessary, than to admit to being conned by disproportionate levels of fear.

‘Cognitive dissonance is when you encounter information that contradicts how you perceive the world and doesn’t fit into your idea of reality,’ says psychologist Patrick Fagan. ‘Research shows that brain activity spikes when you are presented with something that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t fit with your expectations. Re-engineering your idea of reality is painful and difficult. The mind only lets you see what it thinks you can handle. It is very traumatic to realise you were lied to by people you trusted and did things that were damaging. So you adopt psychological defence mechanisms, such as denial, minimisation, rationalisation and projection.’

Since Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages were published last week, we have seen some of these defence mechanisms kick in. Some people outright deny the authenticity of the messages, others claim they have been ‘cherry-picked’ to create a one-sided narrative. People rationalise that the severity of the situation justified Hancock’s intention to ‘scare the pants’ off us. They believe ‘Project Fear’ was part of a noble lie for the greater good. (Although that ignores what the messages also revealed about the early understanding of stratification of risk by age and comorbidity. We were never all equally at risk.) Journalists have turned on Isabel Oakeshott and made her the story, rather than interrogate the contents of the WhatsApp messages – it makes it easier to ignore their failure to ask the right questions at the time.

This cognitive dissonance was, ironically, partly an ex post facto consequence of the lockdown itself. One study found that people judged the risk of Covid based on the fact the Government imposed restrictions – in other words, they thought it must be really bad for the Government to do something so drastic.

Which means that now people simply can’t believe the evidence in front of their own eyes. I was asked many times, ‘but why would the government deliberately frighten us?’ There is one simple answer: we were scared to make us comply with lockdown. It started with the infamous SPI-B minutes which asserted that ‘the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent using hard-hitting emotional messaging’. That was Exhibit A in the hypothesis of A State of Fear, which set out a battery of weapons from distorted statistics, eye-watering fines, ‘nudges’, and misleading adverts on national television to control the population throughout the pandemic.

The most damning indictments came not from me, but from insiders who broke cover to share their deep misgivings. One SPI-B scientist warned of creeping authoritarianism in government: ‘people use the pandemic to grab power and drive through things that wouldn’t happen otherwise…We have to be very careful about the authoritarianism that is creeping in.’

Another SPI-B scientist admitted their concern that ‘We’ve allowed ourselves to be governed in this way…It’s in the name of the unit I am in – it’s behaviour. You could call psychology ‘mind control’. That’s what we do…Clearly we try and go about it in a positive way, but it has been used nefariously in the past. Psychology has been used for wicked ends. I don’t want to get too into this because it’s dystopian and it’s what wakes me up at 3am.’

Another described psychology as a ‘weapon’. ‘Without a vaccine, psychology is your main weapon…Psychology has had a really good epidemic actually.’ When the psychologists advising the Government describe what they are doing as ‘totalitarian’ and ‘dystopian’ you really should pay attention.

In a mea culpa article in UnHerd Nudge Unit founder Simon Ruda also regretted the use of fear and even Rishi Sunak told The Spectator he regrets the ‘fear messaging’.

And now, thanks to The Telegraph we have it in Matt Hancock’s own words – he wanted to ‘frighten the pants’ off everyone with the ‘new variant’ he wanted to ‘deploy’. At the time, it did not escape the notice of some of us that variants could be used to re-inject fresh fear. I warned of ‘scariants’ in my book. Professor Hugh Pennington of the University of Aberdeen accused the Government in an article in the Express in January 2021 of waging a ‘propaganda campaign’ to get the public scared enough to follow lockdown measures. He said: ‘It is all very frustrating. In my heart of hearts I believe there is a propaganda campaign to get the public very scared.’

Various scientists urged calm, reiterated that viruses do mutate, and that there was no evidence yet that this particular variant was more transmissible or deadly. Yet the Government performed a u-turn on December 16, 2020 and changed the rules. The Kent Variant appears to have provided a psychological justification for actions the Government wished to take anyway. Virus variants typically become more infectious and less dangerous. It was misleading in the extreme to use new ‘scariants’ to make people hunker down harder at home.

As well as variants, it is obvious that the Government wanted to use the full force of the law and policing to frighten people into obedience. The Lockdown Files have revealed that Hancock told other ministers to ‘get heavy’ with the police. Rather than pushing back on this apparent operational interference, the police seem to have taken this and run with it. Lockdown protests were policed quite brutally – I saw it myself. I was threatened with arrest when covering a protest and a rather over-zealous and aggressive officer took my press card and demanded to know my ‘password’ for the Press Association. Fines were dished out for sitting on park benches and going for a walk with a friend, and could run up to £10,000. It was quite madly authoritarian, and will further damage trust in policing in this country.

The private communications also confirm what I have revealed already: masks were intended to be a signal, a visible sign of danger. The experts told us right at the beginning we didn’t need to mask. Then masks were mandated despite no new evidence. The gold standard Cochrane Review, which found that ‘wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of influenza‐like illness’ is the final nail in the coffin. 

It was never proportionate or ethical to frighten people to make them follow the rules. I’ve called many times for the Government to investigate its own use of behavioural psychology and for the public to be consulted. There is zero public consent for subliminal manipulation.

Above all, I don’t believe any of this was anywhere near necessary. People modified their behaviour on their own before lockdown because pandemics are frightening anyway. Infections fell before lockdowns. The first advice, that Covid was not a threat to the majority should have continued rather than exaggerating risk.

I’m being asked this week if I feel vindicated by the Lockdown Files. There is no satisfaction in being right. These politicians and civil servants laughed about locking people in shoebox quarantine rooms. They casually decided not to re-open schools. They wanted the police to ‘get heavy’. They couldn’t see the downsides of asking pupils to wear masks in schools. They deliberately misled the country about the dangers of variants. They believed they had a god-like right to frighten, shame and guilt people into doing what they want. And through it all they had no idea what they did to Sanobar, Jane, Susan, Rosie, Jimmy and all the others. 

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Laura Dodsworth is the author of A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Pinter & Martin)

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