Covid in UK
The UK Covid-19 Inquiry, set up to examine the UK's pandemic response, is consulting on the draft terms of reference until the 7th April.

An independent new survey by opinion experts Yonder for grassroots organisation Recovery has revealed that the terms of reference fail to address major public concerns. Although the draft terms bullet-point no less than 32 separate areas of focus for the Inquiry, key areas of concern are missing.

Recovery found that:
  • 42% want the Inquiry to consider the use of behavioural psychology in influencing public behaviour during the pandemic
  • 40% want restrictions on the media examined, reflecting concern over whether the actions of Ofcom and the main broadcasters and social media platforms compromised freedom of speech
  • 60% want a specific focus on children to be included in the inquiry - there is currently no mention of impact of Covid measures on children.
Jon Dobinson who heads up Recovery said:
"There are obvious dangers in the unchecked use of sophisticated psychological techniques by Government to alter people's behaviour without their knowledge or consent. Behavioural psychologists were given free rein during the pandemic and their controversial use of fear in particular has had serious consequences for mental health. The Inquiry must surely bring some overdue scrutiny to the work of the nudge unit: controls on their techniques are vital."
Behavioural science played an unprecedented role in the management of the pandemic - it's why I wrote A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic. It must be considered as part of the Inquiry.

SPI-B shocked the world when it said in March 2020 that the public needed to be frightened so that they would comply with lockdown requirements, because "a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened," recommending that ministers increase "the perceived level of personal threat" posed by Covid, and to frighten the British public with "hard-hitting emotional messaging" to encourage adherence to the emergency lockdown regulations.

Whatever you think of lockdown and restrictions there has to be public accountability for the covert psychological techniques used to encourage adherence to the rules. They have caused collateral damage, made recovery harder and are anti-democratic.

In March 2021, Recovery commissioned an independent poll from Yonder and found that 15% of respondents reported depression, anxiety, or fear as a direct result of government pandemic advertising. A further 7% reported that the advertising made an existing mental health condition worse: that's almost 12 million people around the country whose mental health was damaged by an unprecedented government advertising campaign designed to create fear. And 3% said that the advertising had brought on an entirely new mental health condition requiring treatment.

Some of the most severe criticism of the government's use of fear appeals, shaming and social norms came from the government's own advisors.

As I discovered, one SPI-B scientist warned of creeping authoritarianism in Government:
"people use the pandemic to grab power and drive through things that wouldn't happen otherwise...We have to be very careful about the authoritarianism that is creeping in."
Another SPI-B scientist described psychology as a "weapon":
"Without a vaccine, psychology is your main weapon...Psychology has had a really good epidemic actually."
One independent scientific advisor, deeply embedded in Whitehall but who wishes to remain anonymous, said that they are "stunned by the weaponisation of behavioural psychology" during the pandemic, that
"psychologists didn't seem to notice when it stopped being altruistic and became manipulative. They have too much power and it intoxicates them"
and that "Now if I see a cute seven year old in the news, I wonder which government department is behind it."

Even one of the founders of the Nudge Unit, Simon Ruda, said that
"the most egregious and far-reaching mistake made in responding to the pandemic has been the level of fear willingly conveyed on the public".
As Lord Sumption said,
"The use of fear as a tool of political management is a major challenge to democracy which everyone should reflect upon, whatever their view about lockdowns and Covid-19."
When I wrote A State of Fear I hoped to raise public awareness of how deeply embedded nudge is in UK government and the role it played in the pandemic management. As such, it is incredibly encouraging that 42% of the British public want the Covid-19 terms of reference to include nudge. (Frankly, it deserves a separate Inquiry.)

The consultation closes this Thursday. The process is simple, but if you would like to make it even easier, HART and Together Declaration have shared their submissions which you can draw inspiration from.

I urge you to respond to the consultation. Your views deserve to be taken into account.