UK Government accused of using Fear as a Behavioral Weapon on its Citizens during the Covid-19 Pandemic

I’ve spent too many days with stories related to this open on my computer. So I’m going to throw out quotes and links from most of them while also trying to string them together for you to peruse on your own if you are interested.

At the heart are accusations that the U.K. government purposely and covertly amplified the threat of Covid-19 to manipulate the public into following guidelines the government wanted followed.

The U.K. government has a department called SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) which has a subgroup by the name of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour (SPI-B). This subgroup also has members who are part of the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT), a partly government-owned company dedicated to applying behavioral science to government policies.

SPI-B and BIT collaborated and came up with recommendations of what the government could do during the pandemic in order to “nudge” (anyone remember Cass Sunstein?) people into behaving in ways that the government wanted them to behave. There is an excellent article that is better written and covers the story background much better than I can here.

Now of the suggestions from the two groups listed in the meeting minutes from March 22, 2020, the one from the “Persuasion” section is getting the most focus. It states:

Perceived 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 (8), although levels of concern may be rising (9). Having a good understanding of the risk has been found to be positively associated with adoption of COVID-19 social distancing measures in Hong Kong (10). 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 (11).

The recommendation is saying that people in groups where there is a small mortality risk from Covid-19 are not scared enough. We must raise their fear level and make them feel more personally threatened! How did they propose to do that? As specified by Option 2 in Appendix B from those same minutes, they would use the media to stoke greater fear.

Claimed examples of this include:

Others cite, for example, the fact that the Government tells the public how many people have died within 28 days of a positive Covid test, but does not include the context of whether deaths are above or below the seasonal norm, and also gives daily figures for hospital admissions, but not how many people have recovered.

Terrifying predictions, which are often presented in such a way that they seem like certainties, have also come from the likes of Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser.

In October, ahead of a parliamentary vote on a national lockdown, Sir Patrick warned in a press conference of up to 4,000 deaths per day in the second wave, only for Prof Whitty to admit days later that 1,000 deaths per day was a more likely peak (the second wave peaked at an average of 1,248 daily deaths).

Giving evidence to MPs last month, Prof Whitty and Sir Patrick warned of a fresh spike in cases when schools reopened – which has so far failed to materialise – and suggested another 30,000 people could die (deaths are currently averaging fewer than 50 per day and continue to fall).

The Telegraph, “State of fear: how ministers ‘used covert tactics’ to keep scared public at home”, 4/2/21

The messaging was wildly successful. It turns out fear is a high motivator.

Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics, said: “The idea that you need to increase people’s personal threat disproportionately to the threat they face is a problem. It sets a very dangerous precedent – weaponising fear is the phrase that people use.“

Once the fear has been stoked you can’t diminish it. It’s not like turning a tap on and off –  you can’t turn the fear off.

It clearly worked. Last July, a survey carried out by the consultancy firm Kekst CNC found that almost half of respondents, discounting “don’t knows”, thought Covid had killed 1 per cent of the UK population, equating to more than 600,000 people, when the actual figure at the time was 44,000. Almost a third of respondents thought 6 to 10 per cent, or more, of the population had been killed by Covid, which would mean up to 6.6 million deaths.

While Rishi Sunak has openly discussed his concerns about the effects of lockdown on the economy – effects which will continue beyond June if people remain too afraid to go back to their normal lives – there are other consequences of instilling fear in the public.

The Telegraph, “State of fear: how ministers ‘used covert tactics’ to keep scared public at home,” 4/2/21

Now, after the country has been so terrorized by the Covid messaging, members of the SPI-B are seemingly feeling remorseful and a group have subsequently come out and admitted that their methods were both “totalitarian” and “unethical.”

Members of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour (SPI-B) expressed regret about the tactics in a new book about the role of psychology in the Government’s Covid-19 response.

SPI-B warned in March last year that ministers needed to increase “the perceived level of personal threat” from Covid-19 because “a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened”.

Gavin Morgan, a psychologist on the team, said: “Clearly, using fear as a means of control is not ethical. Using fear smacks of totalitarianism. It’s not an ethical stance for any modern government. By nature I am an optimistic person, but all this has given me a more pessimistic view of people.”

Mr Morgan spoke to author Laura Dodsworth, who has spent a year investigating the Government’s tactics for her book A State of Fear, published on Monday.

The Telegraph, “Use of fear to control behaviour in Covid crisis was ‘totalitarian’, admit scientists”, 5/14/21

I’ve order Ms. Dodsworth’s book and look forward to receiving it soon.

I’ll keep you posted on anything I find revelatory.