Psychologists slam Government's 'unethical' Covid scare tactics

Government’s nudge unit used ‘grossly unethical’ fear tactics ‘like China’ to scare public into following Covid rules, psychologists say

  • Psychologists warn Government’s ‘nudge unit’ used ‘unethical’ scare tactics 
  • 40 co-signatories warned the overarching strategy was ‘like totalitarian China’ 
  • Televised images of ICU patients and focus on Covid deaths came under fire 
  • MPs set to probe conduct of civil servants behind behavioural insights team 

Psychologists have warned the Government’s ‘nudge unit’ manipulated fear tactics in a manner akin to China to coerce a terrified public into following strict Covid rules.

MPs are set to launch a probe into the behaviour of the civil servants behind No 10’s ‘nudge unit’ – used by Downing Street to subtly influence public behaviour – amid fears they employed ‘grossly unethical’ tactics in a manner similar to those seen in authoritarian states.

40 psychologists co-signed a letter to Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, warning of amoral adverts that used slogans like: ‘Stay home to save lives’ and ‘if you go out and spread it, people will die’.

The use televised images that showed ‘the acutely unwell in intensive care units’ and the ‘macabre mono focus on the number of Covid-19 deaths without mention of mortality from other causes’ were also singled out for criticism by the group.

A government memo shared in March 2020 that suggested the ‘perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent’ was also noted in the psychologists’ remarks. 

The letter added: ‘Shaming and scapegoating have emboldened some people to harass those unable or unwilling to wear a face covering.

‘More disturbingly, the inflated fear levels will have significantly contributed to the many thousands of excess non-Covid deaths that have occurred in people’s homes, the strategically-increased anxieties discouraging many from seeking help for other illnesses. 

‘Government scientists deploying fear, shame and scapegoating to change minds is an ethically dubious practice that in some respects resembles the tactics used by totalitarian regimes such as China, where the state inflicts pain on a subset of its population in an attempt to eliminate beliefs and behaviour they perceive to be deviant.’ 

40 psychologists co-signed a letter to Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, warning of amoral adverts that used slogans like: ‘Stay home to save lives’ and ‘if you go out and spread it, people will die’

The use televised images that showed ‘the acutely unwell in intensive care units’ and the ‘macabre mono focus on the number of Covid-19 deaths without mention of mortality from other causes’ were also singled out for criticism by the group.

Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee are now set to investigate the ‘nudge unit’s’ use of scare ads during the pandemic.

William Wragg, the committee’s chairman, told the Telegraph: ‘The central issue is how “nudge” sits within parliamentary democracy and ministerial accountability.

‘Normally, it’s quite straightforward to know where lines of accountability are between the law, parliamentarians scrutinising the law and the public following it.

‘And this is a wider question of how much, in a parliamentary democracy, sits outside of that approach.’

Launched by David Cameron’s government in 2010, the group was responsible for positively influencing behaviour with tiny changes without introducing legislation.

Officially known as the ‘behavioural insights team’, the unit’s remit was expanded to encourage public compliance with Covid regulations at the onset of the pandemic.  

Its previous successes included boosting diversity in the police force, helping the Job Centre get more people off benefits and increasing the number of organ donors.

But the ‘nudge unit’ has come under significant fire in recent weeks for its role in influencing public opinion throughout the Covid crisis.

Earlier this month the group’s co-founder, behavioural scientist Simon Ruda, accused the ‘nudge unit’ of overemphasising ‘propagandistic’ modelling and data.  

‘That fear seems to have subsequently driven policy decisions in a worrying feed-back loop,’ said Mr Ruda, who help set up No10’s Behavioural Insights Team in 2010.

‘In my mind, the most egregious and far-reaching mistake made in responding to the pandemic has been the level of fear willingly conveyed on the public.’

Ministers have been criticised for putting too much stock in ‘worst-case’ Covid scenarios from modelling by its advisers.

The Government has used these projections of cases and deaths to justify restrictive measures to the public or to encourage people to change their behaviours.

One of the more recent models warned of 6,000 daily Covid deaths and 10,000 hospitalisations this winter in a pessimistic scenario.

No10’s chief modeller has previously said that the committee does not consider optimistic scenarios because ‘that doesn’t get decisions made’.

While no new restrictions were brought in in England, people were told to cancel their Christmas parties and ‘prioritise’ who they met.

More restrictive measures were reintroduced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But Mr Ruda suggested that there were not enough experts within Downing Street’s scientific ranks who challenged the data or advice.

Referencing the Government’s now-famous ‘following the science’ line, Mr Ruda said: ‘As we’ve learned over the past two years, focusing on ‘the science’ is blinkered…

Simon Ruda,  co-founder of No10’s ‘Nudge Unit’, accused ministers of using scare tactics during the pandemic

‘Placing all value on data risks de-prioritising reflection, reason and debate — and obscuring the limitations of that data as a depiction of reality…which is why we need multidisciplinary teams, a strong culture of intellectual humility and designed-in cognitive diversity to tackle problems, especially in times of uncertainty.’

Many experts have called for the daily publication of Covid cases, deaths and hospital admissions to be scrapped or put into context with other illnesses.

‘The more we measure something, like Covid infections, the more prominent it becomes and so the more it matters,’ Mr Ruda wrote.

He also raised concerns about the longer-term effects of the campaign of fear deployed during the pandemic.

A Government spokesperson told MailOnline: ‘Since the start of the pandemic we have followed the advice of our world-leading scientists and medical experts, taking the right measures at the right time to defeat coronavirus.

‘As a responsible government, we have informed the public through every means possible as to the severity of Covid-19, providing clear information and guidance about the behaviours they should take to protect themselves, their families and others, including most recently encouraging everyone eligible to get boosted.’

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