United Kingdom

LAURA DODSWORTH: The end is clearly in view for Britain. Yet why do many of us still live in fear?

At a moment when the Indian variant of Covid-19 appears to be throwing our plans into doubt once again, it might be worth thinking about the good news as well as the bad.

Take, for example, the fact that there is no evidence of this or any other mutation of the virus ‘escaping’ the vaccines.

Or the fact that the 15 million most vulnerable adults in the country have already been jabbed and are at very little risk of hospitalisation. The real world evidence shows that clearly.

Or that, thanks partly to the vaccinations, the number of deaths continues to fall.

We have every reason, in fact, to believe that, even though the coronavirus continues to mutate, the end is clearly in view, for Britain and the rest of Europe, at least.

Yet much of our own population continues to live in fear, even those who have been vaccinated. Why is this?

A member of the public receives a Covid-19 vaccine at a temporary vaccination centre at the Essa academy in Bolton

A temporary vaccination centre is set up at the Essa academy in Bolton to speed up the vaccine roll-out in the area 

One disturbing answer is this: our own government has systematically weaponised fear against us, supposedly in our best interests, until we became one of the most frightened countries in the world.

Aided by a group of compliant scientists, those in charge of us have used a range of different weapons, from distorted statistics to a misleading adverts on national television, in order to manipulate the population into doing as they think best.

The ‘messaging’ has been relentless, all of it gloomy, some of it terrifying, from adverts warning us not to ‘kill granny’ to tours of a hospital mortuary on national television news.

Those who dare to dissent on social media, including highly respected academics, have been hounded, told they have blood on their hands.

And the results have been highly effective. No one expected the lock down to be so well observed. 

Or the wider consequences – for children, for businesses, for cancer patients – to be so catastrophic.

The driving force behind this campaign of fear has been a group of behavioural scientists and, in particular, the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours, known as SPI-B. 

This advises SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, which in turn briefs ministers.

In one of the most extraordinary documents ever revealed to the British public, SPI-B actually recommended that we needed to be frightened.

In a report from the beginning of the outbreak, dated 22 March 2020, the committee said: ‘a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened; it could be that they are reassured by the low death rate in their demographic group, although levels of concern may be rising’.

There was a rush to get vaccinated in Bolton yesterday with a long queue forming outside a temporary clinic at the Essa Centre

Extraordinarily, it then said that: ‘the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging’.

In other words, the government was advised to frighten the British public to encourage adherence to the emergency lockdown regulations. And frighten us they did.

There was no shortage of people willing to help, in particular the specialists in mathematical modelling, a once obscure pursuit that now features on prime time television

Time after time, the models have been proved wrong.

Yet their doom-laded predictions have been vastly influential, notoriously the claim by Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College that we were heading for 500,000 deaths unless we locked down.

But we must add into this the broadcasters, who seemed determined not only to promote the government line, but to ignore dissenting voices. 

Lockdown enthusiasts such as Ferguson, epidemiologist Professor John Edmunds and behavioural scientists Professor Susan Michie have been ubiquitous.

Those taking a more optimistic view have had little airtime, or none.

But why would that be surprising when the news has been shaped to a quite unprecedented degree by a government determined to control the message – and those who consume it.

A whole panoply of government agencies has been involved in this campaign of messaging.

Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, has been one of the leading voices backing lockdowns in the UK

More than 36million people have been vaccinated in the UK as part of a massive drive by the Government. Pictured: A dose of the Pfizer vaccine

They include the so-called Nudge Unit at the Cabinet Office, which is responsible for bringing about incremental change in public behaviour.

There’s the Rapid Response Unit which, operating from within the Cabinet Office and No10, is charged wth ‘tackling a range of harmful narratives online - from purported “experts” issuing dangerous misinformation to criminal fraudsters running phishing scams.’

The unit works parallel to the counter Disinformation Cell, which is supposed to deal with threats to democracy.

There’s GCHQ and the Home Office’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU).

Then there is the mysterious 77th Brigade, which is part of the army and is responsible for countering disinformation.

Many believe that the 77th Brigade has been actively countering lockdown sceptics on social media.

For my book, I spoke to an independent scientific advisor deeply embedded at Whitehall who told me that he and his colleagues are ‘stunned by the weaponisation of behavioural psychology over the last five years’ and that ‘psychology and behavioural science are feted above everything else.

‘The psychologists didn’t seem to notice when it stopped being altruistic and became manipulative. They have too much power and it intoxicates them.’

‘I never used to be cynical,’ my anonymous source told me, ‘you couldn’t find a more positive person. Now if I see a cute seven-year-old in the news, I wonder which government department is behind it.’

In the advisor’s opinion, ‘Everything about the government messaging this year has been designed to keep the fear going.’

Will these tactics of state-sanctioned manipulation be used combat future ‘challenges’ – climate change, for example?

Government orders to wash our hands, to keep our distance from each other, to remember ‘hands, face, space’ is one thing.

A legally directed biosecurity state which mandates staying at home is quite another.

We have never before quarantined the healthy and impeded so many human rights in one fell swoop.

Our rights to liberty, protest, worship, education and maintaining relationships were all impacted. And these are not trifling privileges, but basic liberties: our human rights as established in law.

There are many, many issues to be addressed when the official enquiry into our handling of Covid-19 is eventually allowed to start.

But the deliberate decision to terrify the population must surely be among them.

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