masks social control
On August 23, 1973, an attempted bank raid at Stockholm's Norrmalmstorg Square went badly wrong.

Four hostages were taken and the drama ended only five days later when tear gas forced the robbers to surrender.

The hold-up would doubtless have been forgotten but for the odd reaction of the hostages, who formed a close bond with their jailers.

And it was the events of those few days that gave their name to something now commonly described as Stockholm Syndrome.

This phenomenon has often been identified in the half-century since Norrmalmstorg Square.

But it has been remarkable to see it exhibited by whole swathes of the British public over the past year.

After 16 months of being told by the state when we could leave our homes, whether we could see our families, with whom we were allowed to have sex, or what kinds of sports we were permitted to play, many of us are eager to regain the human dignity that comes with the exercise of our own free will.

Others react differently.

© Ben Cawthra/REX/Shutterstock
How far tomorrow looks like a real Freedom Day will be up to all of us and our determination to return to normal life. It is time for us all now to start using our own judgment'
When told that their double vaccination gives them substantial protection from serious illness, people worry that the jabs might work today, but what about next month or next year?

What if a new variant comes along that can evade the vaccines altogether?

For many months the evidence has shown that the most likely places to catch Covid are care homes, hospitals and private homes, but opinion polls show a widespread fantasy that the real dangers are from international travel, pubs and restaurants.

The Government's least rational restrictions have played up to these unfounded prejudices, of course.

The closure of Covid-secure restaurants last autumn came shortly after the Sage advisers published advice that doing so would be unlikely to make much difference.

Similarly, making people jump through endless hoops and take multiple expensive tests if they want to fly to a safe and sunny country for a week or two by the sea must make those who don't study the evidence believe that going to Majorca is a pretty risky business.

The trouble with Stockholm Syndrome is that the greater the control to which people are subjected, the greater the dependence people develop.

The line between coercion and care becomes blurred, the hostage starts to see the man with the AK-47 who holds him in a cell not as a jailer but as a protector.

For 16 months, the British population has been subject not just to minute control but to a constantly changing menu of restrictions.

First, you were banned from sitting on a park bench but could walk through a park. Then you could sit with a friend but only at opposite ends of the bench. Next you could talk to a friend outdoors - but not in a private garden.

For months we could leave our homes for only one form of exercise, for shopping or for work. Then we were told it was safer to be outside all the time.

We could walk right across a golf course with a friend - so long as no funny business like playing golf was involved.

When I asked a Health Minister in the Commons how she could justify banning healthy activities such as golf, tennis or bowls, she actually replied that while those activities were indeed safe, if we 'let people do those things, they might think they can do other things too'.

How far a proud nation has allowed itself to fall!

So, as we approach tomorrow's partial lifting of restrictions, some of us eagerly anticipate being allowed to have a family meal again in our own homes and will do so.

Yet others are anxious and are asking for restrictions to go on for just a little bit longer.

We see this divide most clearly in the near hysteria about facemasks. Almost nobody is asking the serious questions about whether facemasks are actually effective in stopping the spread of Covid.

Until very recently, both the World Health Organisation and the public health authorities in this country were saying there was very little evidence in favour of wearing them.

The experience of different US states is instructive. California covered up and Florida didn't, but it was the Sunshine State that emerged in better shape from the pandemic.

We might also look at what has happened here. Masks seem to have been very helpful in eliminating flu, but Covid has spread regardless.

Many politicians and advisers will admit privately that the policy change compelling people to wear masks was not really about the spread of infection at all but about the psychological effect that they would have.

That real purpose is social control - to provide a constant reminder to maintain distance from other people.

To maintain a state of anxiety that leaves people more likely to comply with the restrictions that might otherwise be resisted or forgotten.

This is exactly the same approach that the Government's behavioural experts on the sinister-sounding advisory group known as SPI-B - the Independent Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours - has admitted using.

'The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging,' said the SPI-B paper of March 22, 2020.

This will be one of the most important questions when the inquiry into the handling of the pandemic begins: just how far it can ever be right for the state to use fear to manipulate the population of a free democratic country?

public facemasks
Almost nobody is asking the serious questions about whether facemasks are actually effective in stopping the spread of Covid'
Once we understand the extent to which our minds have been messed with, we can begin to understand the reluctance felt by so many people to get on with living their lives.

The person next to you on the bus is no longer a fellow human being but a filthy vector of transmission.

Hugging your grandchildren has been turned in the minds of many into a game of Russian roulette.

Surely, after 16 months of behavioural science being used to heighten fear and anxiety, the Government should turn the dial the other way.

Why not tell people that while a nasty new variant remains a statistical possibility, the vaccine seems pretty effective against all those that have appeared so far and is likely to remain so in the future?

Comment: Because, well, that would be a lie too.

Why not explain to people that the usual evolution of viruses is to become easier to spread but less likely to kill?

Most important of all, it is high time that the Department of Health started to publish figures separating out the numbers of hospital admissions where the patient really had been admitted because they were ill with the virus from those brought in for other conditions but who subsequently tested positive for Covid - a greater number.

Sajid Javid, the new Health Secretary, made a great start when he wrote in this newspaper of the massive damage that has been done to people's health and life chances by repeated lockdowns.

He is right that we need to learn to live with Covid, banking the success of the vaccines.

But the damage to schools, businesses and family holidays will continue until the threat of being 'pinged' and self-isolation is completely ended.

How far tomorrow looks like a real Freedom Day will be up to all of us and our determination to return to normal life. It is time for us all now to start using our own judgment - but to get out there and start living as we did before.

Let us take responsibility for our own appetite for risk, for our own lives, once again. Government should treat us all as adults.