Failures in the UK’s pandemic response are not hard to identify, but on one front the Government’s success is undeniable: persuading a fearful nation to stay locked indoors for much of the past year.
The daily diet of statistics on deaths, hospitalisations and Covid cases has been so effective that compliance with lockdown has gone far beyond what ministers expected.
But the problem with fear, as one behavioural scientist said on Friday, is that “you can’t turn it on and off like a tap”.
As the country prepares for the complete end of lockdown in June, there are far-reaching questions about how many people will return to the workplace, or to normality, and the consequences of that for the economy and for physical and mental health.
Whether frightening the public was a deliberate – or honest – tactic has become the subject of intense debate, and dozens of psychologists have now accused ministers of using “covert psychological strategies” to manipulate the public’s behaviour.
They believe the Government, acting on the advice of behavioural experts, has emphasised the threat from Covid without putting the risks in sufficient context, leaving the country in “a state of heightened anxiety”.
They also claim that “inflated fear levels will be responsible for the ‘collateral’ deaths of many thousands of people with non-Covid illnesses” who are “too frightened to attend hospital”.
They are so concerned that the British public has been the subject of a mass experiment in the use of strategies that operate “below their level of awareness” that they have made a formal complaint to their professional body, which will now rule on whether government advisers have been guilty of a breach of ethics.
The Government, and its advisers, deny any such transgression, arguing that they have simply presented the public with the facts about the threat Covid poses, and what they need to do to stay safe.
One of the key pieces of evidence cited by those who have complained about “covert” tactics comes from a document prepared for the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) at the beginning of the pandemic a year ago.
Dated March 22, the paper written by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) stated: “A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened;