How the UK has been scared into submission

Posted by Ed 51 days ago
“The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.”   – SPI-B paper, 22 March 2020.

Fear is the most powerful of emotions and, as emotions are stronger than thoughts, fear can overpower the clearest of minds. We shouldn’t feel bad about being frightened. From an evolutionary perspective, it is key to our survival, it protects us from danger. And that is precisely what makes fear one of the most powerful tools in behavioural psychology.

Britain has been a world leader in behavioural insights since David Cameron set up the “nudge unit”. We now export behavioural psychology to governments and corporations around the world. The Government has used behavioural psychology to influence behaviour and encourage compliance during the Covid-19 epidemic. But has the nudge become a shove?

When the SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) minutes were published, people were startled by the admission that the UK Government intended to deliberately frighten people to make them follow the lockdown rules.

But governments have long-used use fear to control populations and influence behaviour, from the benign intentions of health campaigns such as the 1980s hard-hitting Dont die of ignorance” HIV campaign, to the more concerning end of the scale, such as the USA’s MK-ULTRA.

Can using fear be justified in a disaster? SPI-B (Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group) clearly think so. And many people might think that a little bit of fear is an acceptable trade off if it is for the greater good. Once it became clear that herd immunity was unpalatable to the British media and public, the government changed tack and imposed lockdown.

 Not expecting compliance, the behavioural scientists of SPI-B recommended that the government use “hard-hitting emotional messaging”, enact legislation, use the media to increase the sense of threat and instigate social disapproval to ensure people followed the guidance.

The British public have been subjected to a 24/7 onslaught of fear from the daily death tolls, to the (mis)use of statistics, tone of messaging and, in a particularly low note, public health messages imploring the young, “Don’t kill granny.”

From the beginning, the Government and media reported the daily death toll with macabre dedication. Epidemics sell better than sex. I spoke to David Paton, Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham, University, who has taken a keen interest in the reporting of data during the epidemic, he said:

The metrics always seem to err on the side of maximising numbers, and it takes time to undo that, like with the Public Health England death counting. The BBC continued to report PHE death data even though the government had officially suspended it, so that had the effect of people thinking deaths were higher than they were. There is also a case for saying we don’t report daily cases and deaths for flu, so just reporting by day is damaging in itself.

Humans can’t sustain fear indefinitely: we get bored, we relax or, some might say, complacent. How to sustain the belief in the necessity of restrictions to our lives over six months? After daily death tolls dropped, focus turned to rate of transmission and cases, which have since taken over the headlines.

And after all, if there were no cases, how would we know we are in an “epidemic” at the moment? If you looked at the deaths plotted on a graph but avoided all media, you would think it’s over.

One of David Paton’s worst data moments during the epidemic came mid-April:

It was clear deaths were going down, but Chris Whitty said we hadn’t seen the peak yet. That was a big one for me. He was downplaying the downward trend in deaths. I think there were obviously deliberate policy decisions to make people take it seriously, but the data should be presented factually and then interpreted.

Some data has crumbled at the merest whiff of a challenge. Sadiq Khan quoted some quite astonishing figures: that someone not wearing a face covering had a 70% risk of transmitting the virus, but by wearing a mask the risk was reduced to 5%.
The source was the British Medical Association. I contacted BMA who claimed that their Medical Academic Staff Committee and Public Health Medicine Committee had produced the calculations.
Seven emails, two tweets and one phone call later, it turned out these figures had not been calculated by the BMA, but “based on a presentation by Chinese infectious disease specialist Professor Wenhong Xhang in March.”
They withdrew their claims only after they had been published via national broadcast and print media. Associated Press Factcheck came to the same conclusion as I did and labelled the claims “partially false”. 

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