Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
“Millions of people took seriously a communications campaign, apparently designed by behavioural psychologists, to bully, to shame and to terrify them into compliance with minute restrictions …”
In the Commons’ debate on the Sue Gray report, Steve Baker’s intervention was one of the few which did not prompt the Prime Minister to remind us that he is currently under investigation by the Metropolitan Police.
The MP for Wycombe took the PM to task over Government messaging in connection with Covid. Not only had people meticulously followed the rules (unlike a certain First Lord of the Treasury and his wife, perhaps?), but their mental health had suffered.
Baker’s question on Monday highlights the growing unease that the messaging was unethical and its results malign. It also called into the question the role of behaviour psychology, the science of what drives our decision-making. It seems the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will be looking into the use of “nudge” tactics in connection with the Government’s response to the pandemic.
Recent reports on Covid’s collateral damage highlight an increased risk of measles because the take-up of MMR jabs is the lowest in a decade, as well as an £8.7 billion loss thanks to defective and unsuitable PPE. Such missteps in connection with public policy – inadvertent or not – are quantifiable. Assessments about burning through taxpayers’ hard-earned money in a pandemic-induced public-spending spree are far easier than judging the impact of Covid comms and the tactics to ensure the acceptance of public health measures.
It must be remembered that back in early 2020, the Government was flying blind, needing to do something, anything, to protect us from a possible plague. In addition, behavioural science – which informed some of the messaging – is meant to tap into our subconscious minds. But even raising the subject of possible subliminal coercion risks comparisons with incel-prone nutters, breathless with conspiracy theories about how the Pfizer/Moderna/AZ clot shot will turn us all into lizards.
The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), better known as the Nudge Unit, was set up by David Cameron in the early days of the Coalition to improve the workings of government by injecting an understanding of human behaviour into policy. Inside the Nudge Unit (2015) by its director David Halpern chronicles how small changes – such as reminders from HMRC that ‘most people pay their tax on time’ – can produce big results, at almost no financial cost.
Nudging has been used across government departments for the past decade. It has saved the taxpayer millions by, for example, reducing missed medical appointments. As Prof Halpern states, nudges work on an unconscious, automatic level: “Behaviourally-based interventions can operate below the conscious radar of busy citizens.”
According to Gray, “The UK Government put in place far-reaching restrictions on citizens that had direct and material impact on their lives, livelihood and liberties.” The overwhelming majority of us complied with the lockdowns. How far the Government and its agencies coerced us into this compliance, not least by deliberate fearmongering, is now coming onto the conscious radar of Britain’s busy citizens.
SPI-B, the behavioural science sub-group of SAGE, set out Options for Increasing Social Distancing Measures in a paper on March 22 2020. As it stated, “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.”
In 2020, the Government spent £184 million on Covid-related advertising, including on the message that if we went out, we could spread the virus and ‘People Will Die’. This is bullying, not bribing, taxpayers with their own money. Was the emetic ‘Don’t Kill Your Gran’ inspired by SPI-B’s recommendation that messaging needs to emphasise the duty to protect others?
With its calamitous forecasting record, if it were Paddy Power, SAGE would have gone bust long ago. Among members of SPI-B, three are from BIT, one is a communist and four declined to give their names. So much for transparency. Last month, Simon Ruda, a BIT co-founder, stated that fewer than one per cent of its staff supported Brexit. If behavioural science is meant to correct the biases that lead us into making poor decisions, surely diversity of opinion should be encouraged?
Spun off from the Cabinet Office in 2014, BIT is now a global consultancy with 250 staff. In December, the government announced it will sell its one-third stake to innovation agency Nesta, whose Chief Executive stated in the Financial Times that “tackling Covid has shown what, properly applied, behavioural insights can do.” Mask-wearing, apparently, shows compliance with social norms and is a wider signal for others to take precautions.
Project Fear 2.0 included the daily Terror at Tea-Time press conferences, with their update on the Covid death toll. Even today, the tally is a context-free zone. We are still told nothing about, for example, how many people have recovered from the virus and been discharged from hospital. Why not? We need some positive news, not more doom porn.
Who doesn’t know people who are still reluctant to leave their homes? After almost two years of relentless bombardment about disease and death, caution is understandable. Fearing contamination – especially during the Hands, Face, Space phase of messaging – householders disinfected their deliveries or left them outside their front doors for days.
Given we still have a state broadcaster and the millions shovelled their way, it is unsurprising that much of the media have become outposts of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. In the context of the Government’s Covid response, we heard too few voices of dissent and too much cheer-leading for the dystopia it was creating.
The messaging and manipulation is beginning to look counter-productive. Children have foregone their MMR jabs not least because parents heeded warnings about avoiding GP surgeries and hospitals. On Wednesday, a study by John Hopkins University found that lockdowns had little impact, perhaps reducing the death rate by 0.2 per cent.
Last July, Laura Dodsworth published A State of Fear – How the Government Weaponised Fear During the Covid-19 Pandemic. Endorsed by Lord Sumption, it was dismissed by The Times’ David Aaronovitch as ‘an outrageously dumb book selling conspiracy hooey’. Thankfully, some MPs are finally starting to do their job of holding the Executive to account and we might get to see whose call is correct.
Public policy often tries to change our behaviour. Being encouraged to eat five a day is, however, completely different from being coerced into ceding our freedoms, human rights and liberty. Ethics vanished.
As Prof Halpern noted, “Many experiments are run which depend on the subject not knowing they are part of the experiment.”
We, the lab rats, eh?