By any measure, the coronavirus situation in Britain should be looking pretty rosy by now, as Covid-19 cases are down, hospital admissions are down, deaths are down and vaccinations are up. The NHS has not been overwhelmed, the pubs are open and the kids are free to hug their gran. So, why the glum faces?
Something seemed off kilter last night as the TV news screened images of holiday-hungry Brits arriving in Portugal, a teenage cancer survivor hugging his nan after a year of forced separation and a bunch of lads in a Barnsley pub drinking pints and watching the football play-offs.
These scenes of jollity were tempered with news from India of a new variant that had arrived in the UK and was proving wildly virulent, perhaps threatening the freedoms we had longed for, if its spread continued unabated. The message was clear: restrictions on our freedom might have eased from Monday, but we could be back in lockdown unless we can manage this latest ‘scariant’ from the sub-continent. Stay alert. Stay afraid.
I’m sorry, but this time I just don’t buy it. Enough with the scare tactics, the dashboard of death and the prophets of doom. It’s quite clear the vaccine is working. I’ve had both doses on the very clear understanding that it works, and I don’t expect I’ll be hospitalised or die even if I do at some point contract the virus.
But PM Boris Johnson and his government are addicted to fear and the control it gives over a compliant public. As journalist Laura Dodsworth makes the case in her new book, ‘A State of Fear: How the UK Government Weaponised Fear During the Covid-19 Pandemic’, the British public needs to push back on this constant bait and switch aimed at keeping us all in a perpetual state of anxiety.
As soon as we think one doomsday scenario has been overcome, another appears in its place. Psychologist Dr Harrie Bunker-Smith tells Dodsworth the government’s tactics echo those found in an abusive relationship, and she is spot-on.
“Abusers will say they won’t do something again, but then they keep doing it,” says Dr Bunker-Smith. “Abuse is not constant, it’s not bad all the time. You have periods of extreme abuse followed by the honeymoon period, where you get flowers and apologies and promises, and then things deteriorate again.”
Here’s how the last 24 hours have played out. After months of wearisome lockdown (extreme abuse) the joy was evident on everyone’s faces yesterday, when lockdown eased. A stranger smiled at me and asked if I’d had a hug yet (the honeymoon period).
But things quickly soured (the deterioration). No sooner had thousands boarded their flights to the sun than BoJo announced it was inadvisable to travel to countries on the UK’s amber list, that the Indian variant posed a major threat to those who refused to vaccinate, that plans were being drawn up for a return to the loathsome local lockdowns, and that ‘freedom day’ on June 21 was most probably a non-starter. The abuse continued.
As Dodsworth discusses, fear diminishes over time, but by announcing an easing of restrictions, the government faced losing the psychological grip over a malleable public that it had worked so hard at establishing and then enforcing by draconian emergency laws.
Aided and abetted by what the author calls its team of “unelected psychocrats” – the behavioural insights experts who advise the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – the government has encouraged the use of fear to control people’s behaviour during the pandemic. One unnamed member of that team, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), said they were “stunned by the weaponisation of behavioural psychology” on the British public.
Another anonymous member told Dodsworth, “In March  the government was very worried about compliance, and they thought people wouldn’t want to be locked down. There were discussions about fear being needed to encourage compliance, and decisions were made about how to ramp up the fear.”
Gavin Morgan, one SPI-B psychologist who was prepared to be named, admitted, “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.”
Establishing control was relatively easy. A straightforward effort was in the choice of data and graphs that were shared with the public at the regular press briefings from Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Chris Whitty. Professor David Paton, a professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University, called the duo’s appearances “the ultimate psyop”.
Since January last year, the pair and their colleagues have frequently appeared to pronounce the number of Covid-19 cases, hospital admissions and deaths across Great Britain. When you stop to think for just a minute, something was obviously missing from their grim presentations. What about the number of people who’d recovered from the coronavirus?
With the bodies stacking up to be carted away by military trucks in Italy, or dumped on the banks of the Ganges in India, no one has bothered to talk about those millions upon millions of people who beat Covid, which would have sent multiple messages. First, this thing is not a death sentence for everyone; second, it’s not even a hospital visit for many; and third, it’s a virus you need to be cautious about, not to fear. As one of Dodsworth’s sources says, “People would have loved headlines about recovery.”
LIke many of its media accomplices in ratcheting up the fear factor, the government realises there’s nothing scary about good news, so best just not mention it. It’s not as if the docile journalists we expected to challenge these experts even thought of asking the question.
The experts determined the frame of reference for the spread of Covid-19, and told us only what they wanted us to know in order to keep us fearful. Data that never revealed those who had recovered from the virus or were discharged from hospital created a false illusion that this was an ever-escalating red line that would continue on an upwards trajectory, rather than the usual bell jar graph we would expect.
It was, and is, a cynically manipulative exercise that remains the go-to strategy in Downing Street. Now, however, thanks to the work of authors such as Dodsworth, the brain fog is lifting, as ‘normal’ beckons on the horizon and more folk are starting to question the government’s judgements on its roadmap out of this crisis.
It’s true that the public mood has changed. I’m not sure if it’s the lifting of the holiday ban, the chance to have a pint at the local or the vaccination rollout that’s done it. Maybe it’s all these things and more.
The creepy ‘psychocrats’ pulling the strings have been rumbled, and as awareness grows of their role in the government’s inept management of the pandemic, they’ll scuttle under the furniture like cockroaches caught in the light, leaving the politicians fully exposed and expected to explain themselves. And then the real fun begins.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.
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