3 November 2023

Who will admit to terrifying the British people?


It has become apparent during the Covid Inquiry that no one wants to admit to inflicting a campaign of fear on the British people. None of the witnesses seems able to look into Lady Justice Hallet’s eyes and admit that they told us to look into each others eyes and say we never broke the rules.

Professor James Rubin, co-chair of the Independent Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) assured the Covid Inquiry that ‘SPI-B spent its time trying to work out how to support members of the community, not to scare them’. This does rather seem to conflict with a SPI-B paper from March 2020, which recommended that:

‘The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging. To be effective this must also empower people by making clear the actions they can take to reduce the threat … A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened; it could be that they are reassured by the low death rate in their demographic group, although levels of concern may be rising.’

David Halpern, the head of the Behavioural Insights Teams, a.k.a. the Nudge Unit, unrepentantly declared in an interview with the Telegraph that the government’s fear-mongering during the pandemic was justified. ‘There are times when you do need [fear] to cut through… particularly if you think people are wrongly calibrated’, he said.

Calibration is an odd term to use in regard to the human brain. It implies a scientist or technician precisely altering parameters of a unit of machinery or equipment. It’s a cold and arrogant way to view the human brain and the amplification of fear.

He used the word again in the Covid Inquiry this week. It is difficult to discern how Halpern would precisely calibrate brains to the correct level of risk perception, when he did not understand what the risk to the public was at that time. He remembers that ‘the implication, if you read it, a lot of people were potentially going to die’ [italics my emphasis] and he references ‘Spanish flu’. Quite a lot was known about Covid-19 by February 2020 within the W.H.O. and UK government, not least that it was nothing like Spanish flu, given it was dangerous to the elderly and people with certain co-morbidities, and not the young. 

Halpern has received the same soft line of questioning as other establishment favourites in the Inquiry, and in his case it seems designed to deflect from the decision to terrify the nation.

Matt Hancock and Head of the Civil Service Simon Case’s attitude to scaremongering would be impossible for them to dispute. According to their leaked Whatsapp messages, Hancock brazenly wanted to ‘frighten the pants off everyone with the new strain’ and Case put forward that ‘Small stuff ridiculous, ramping up messaging, the fear/guilt factor, vital’.

While Covid-19 is a serious and dangerous disease for the elderly and frail, those who were ‘complacent’ had probably corrected ‘calibrated’ the risk for themselves. But personal responsibility was seen as a conduit to danger, and government advisers like Halpern, SPI-B, civil servants and Ministers had no trust in the public and went on to operationalise a campaign of fear which targeted the whole population, not just the silly complacents.

One campaign which ran in Preston utilised ‘hard hitting emotional messaging’ through fear and guilt induction (so beloved by Case), warning children, ‘Don’t kill Granny’. Hancock also parroted this callous slogan in the national media. Children would have lost thousands of grandparents to Covid-19 and it was a dereliction of care to suggest it would be their fault.

Gruesome campaigns drew on horror film aesthetics, featuring people on gurneys, oxygen masks and with bloodshot eyes. In one, we were told to ‘look him in the eyes’ and tell him we never broke the rules. If people died, it was our fault for not being compliant and not, say, the government’s woeful PPE stockpiles. Another ad hyperbolically warned not to let a coffee cost lives.

Big numbers were used to hone people’s attention and to frighten them. Deaths were announced daily, but not the number of recoveries, hospital admissions but not discharges. Modelling and worst case scenarios were used to create fear and soften people up for compliance. Red lines on graphs loomed like mythical monsters.

The media used descriptors like ‘covidiots’, ‘selfish morons’ and ‘granny killers’ to describe anyone behaving irresponsibly, effectively scapegoating individuals for increasing cases and/or deaths.

It went on and on.

This is why certain government advisors broke cover to tell me that ‘the way we have used fear is dystopian’ and that they were ‘stunned by the weaponisation of behavioural psychology’.

Epidemics are frightening times. While some advisors claim fear was not used, they are perhaps struggling with their own cognitive dissonance.

For example, in June 2021 Professor Susan Michie argued on television that masks and social distancing measures should continue ‘forever’. That is in no way rational. And it was never evidence-based in the first place. 

And in December 2021, amidst calls that another lockdown was needed, Professor Robert West tweeted:   

‘It is now a near certainty that the UK will be seeing a hospitalisation rate that massively exceeds the capacity of the NHS. Many thousands of people have been condemned to death by the Conservative Government.’   

In fact, the UK never came close to SAGE’s projected deaths, or exceeded NHS capacity.  

It’s embarrassing to admit you were scared out of your wits and that you calibrated others to feel the same. But not only is the Inquiry failing to recognise that fear was weaponised against the British population, even if supposedly in our best interests, it is failing to ask the most basic questions which underpin the way behavioural science and psychology took such a starring role in the pandemic management.

What formal ethical framework do behavioural scientists operate within? Who has responsibility for literature reviews of the latest research on ethics? And is it morally acceptable for a government to strategically inflict emotional distress to make people adhere to rules? 

I interviewed a woman last week who was quite undone by fear during the Covid pandemic. She told me that she had a breakdown, tried to kill herself and was under the care of a mental health team for weeks. She told me that even now ‘it’s left me slightly traumatised. I’m still on anti-depressants. This is my new normal’. 

The arguments in favour of weaponising fear to coerce people during a crisis look so unpalatable once the crisis has passed, that no one will admit to advancing the arguments in the first place. And astonishingly, there was no plan to de-escalate the fear. Some people still struggle with Covid Anxiety Syndrome and their new normal is OCDs, health anxiety and mistrust of authorities.

Now, look us in the eyes and admit you did it.

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, author of bestsellers including 'Free Your Mind: The new world of manipulation and how to resist it'

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