Photo: Book cover.

[Book Review] A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic

Scare Them, They’ll Obey.

History happens not when people are asleep but when they are wide awake with fear.

The essential story of the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK, and plausibly, in many countries, is not the story of a new virus and the deaths it caused. It is the story of how governments deliberately created fear to manipulate citizens into complying with public health measures that were known from the outset to be wrong, disproportionate and futile. Nothing was inevitable about what happened. Everything was willed and blundered through. It is the kind of truth that could make one go mad.

But such are the facts, painstakingly gathered by Laura Dodsworth in her book, “A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponized fear during the Covid-19 pandemic”. When there will be a special inquiry into Operation Fear, which I expect to be only a matter of time, it is not far-fetched to imagine the inquirers themselves vetting the book for leads.

Is it not extraordinary that the scientists advising the UK government recommended that the British public be deliberately frightened to obtain compliance with lockdown measures? In their report “Options For Increasing Adherence to Social Distancing Measures”, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group (SPI-B) notes “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’, so they recommended that ‘the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.”

Is it not extraordinary that leaked documents from the German Ministry of Interior show that scientists were asked to produce a worst-case scenario with the explicit purpose of mentally preparing the Germans (“get ahead of the situation mentally”, in the original document) and to plan (meaning, to make people accept) “measures of a preventive and repressive nature”. The scenario paper recommends conveying the effects of infection in language most apt to create a “shock effect”, such as “Many seriously ill are taken to hospital by their relatives, but turned away, and die in agony at home gasping for breath. Choking or not getting enough air is a primal fear for everyone. The same applies to the situation in which there is nothing you can do to help loved ones who are in mortal danger. The images from Italy are disturbing.” The children are to be warned too, because in the language recommendation of the report, “When they infect their parents and one of them dies in agony at home and they feel they are to blame for forgetting to wash their hands after playing, for example, it is the most terrible thing a child will ever experience.”

The crowning revelation though is of another scope entirely. The leaked report states “Only with social cohesion and a mutual distance from one another can this crisis not only be overcome with little damage, but also be future-oriented for a new relationship between society and the state“. In other words, Germany must use the coronavirus outbreak to expand state powers. Is this the real reason why Chancellor Scholz wanted to pass mandatory vaccination?

One of great merits of Dodsworth’s book is her tackling of the dangerous implications of “Nudge” theory, the science that make it possible for the UK government to weaponize fear to obtain compliance. Nudge theory is the idea in behavioural science (the science of how people behave) that coercion is not necessary to obtain compliance. Instead, they can be nudged, or stimulated towards taking particular decisions and actions through subtle suggestions, without them realizing they are being influenced into taking those particular decisions and actions. For example, masks and instruction signs such as lines on the floor for queuing up are meant to nudge for people to comply with lockdown measures without resistance, not unlike lab rats. In the words of a nudge specialist to whom the author complains of finding the dots in supermarkets “infantilizing and bossy”, nudge theory, or “behavioural science doesn’t measure whether we like the dots or not, just whether we follow them.” But the risk of infection, in fact, was not why they were mandated. As an MP reveals to the author, the UK government knew masks were ineffective but still mandated them because it would give people confidence to shop around and help the economy rebound. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief advisor, favoured lockdown not because of the virus but because “the way the virus might ruin their PR credibility over the NHS (National Health Service). It all stems from the election campaign they ran on saving it.”

Sold as harmless influencing, nudge theory is in fact mass manipulation made banal. In the 2010 report of the Institute for Government, MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy, proponents admit nudge theory raise serious ethical issues. “Citizens,” the report says, may not fully realize that their behaviour is being changed, and “clearly, this opens government up to charges of manipulations“ (p. 67). The report recognizes “a lack of conscious control also has implications for consent and freedom of choice”, and “if the effect operations automatically, it may offer little opportunity for citizens to opt-out or to choose otherwise.” (p. 67). Defending nudge methods, however, the report argues “Of course, there are good reasons why public acceptability should not be the sole or determining condition for going forward with behaviour change.” The risk with nudge tactics was always that it would prove too seductive and cheap for governments to resist when a major crisis would come and they could simply suspend the need for public consent. When nudge theory has provided the means to inflict economic ruin on millions and to effect the greatest peacetime violation of human rights, it is squarely the legality, even constitutionality of the method, that is the main problem; public acceptability is just euphemism for what is, properly speaking, a legal problem. Would the public have consented had it known it was being to subject to an experiment in fear and obedience on account of a pandemic whose real magnitude had been deliberately exaggerated?

As if an omen of the future adventures and scandals of nudge theory, the author recounts a conversation with an advisor, who when asked how to end lockdown, replied “The idea of going back to so-called-normal is a major area of consideration. There’s a climate crisis coming and that’s going to have to be dealt with. The way we have gone about adapting to the virus has been quite beneficial in terms of working patterns and reducing carbon – all the things we are going to have to go through to adjust to the new future. As the New Zealand prime minister put it, we need to “build back better”. There are challenging times ahead of us for the next 20 or 30 years, God help us. The most major crisis of humanity is starting. I see the weather patterns changing around me. I believe in climate change. It’s already getting bad. These will have major impacts on the nature of the world around us.”

Lockdown and all its collateral damage did not need to happen. In fact, it would surprise anyone who in good faith have followed lockdown measures that existing public health emergencies in the UK, for example, specifically do not recommend lockdown. Indeed, lockdown would not even have been an option had the technology infrastructure (the internet and computers) not existed to permit advanced economies to carry on despite the restrictions in place. How did it all happen then? Through fear, pure and simple.

Laurie Daniels

Buy Laura Dodsworth’s book, A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic, here.

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