Concerns heard about Government use of fear to increase adherence to Covid restrictions

The Pandemic Response and Recovery All-Party Parliamentary Group of cross-party MPs met for its second session of 2022, to examine the Government's Covid communication strategy, which followed guidance from Independent Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B).

Co-chaired by Conservative MP The Rt Hon Esther McVey and Labour MP Graham Stringer, the Group listened to evidence from experts about the use of covert psychological strategies, commonly referred to as ‘nudges’, the ethical implications and their effects on the population.

The APPG heard from Laura Dodsworth, author of 'A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic’, Dr Gary Sidley, a retired Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Professor Marcantonio Spada, Professor of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health at London South Bank University. Retired police officer Darren, spoke about the traumatic impact the Government's Covid-19 restrictions, using “nudge” techniques, had on his life.

All the experts voiced serious concerns about the way in which the use of behavioural science represented an untested and radical departure from the traditional methods of legislation, information provision and rational argument used by Governments to influence the behaviour of their citizens.

Opening the expert testimony, Laura Dodsworth told the MPs and Peers: “Fear was ‘weaponised’ according to the experts I spoke to when researching my book. The impact and the ethics of using fear, and the specific tactics and methods, have been one of the most pernicious aspects of the Government’s approach to managing the pandemic.

“What ethical framework are Government behavioural scientists adhering to? We need to see the full documentation of their Covid-19 campaigns, to understand the objectives, the methods and the ethical considerations. There is an enormous amount of public money being spent in this area with no proper accountability. The unintended consequences are yet to become clear and an inquiry is urgent if we are to understand the impact and avoid such an approach on mental health and people’s behaviour in the future. It’s clear that Government deployment of behavioural science merits wider scrutiny beyond Covid-19.”

Ms McVey said: “The Prime Minister's announcement of 21 February, lifting restrictions, was extremely welcome. It will though take some time for the nation to recover, particularly psychologically. We know that children have suffered immensely due to lockdown, with the damning Ofsted report from December 2021 finding a surge in mental health disorders among young children.    “I am troubled by the evidence presented by our experts, particularly that the level of moderate to severe psychological distress in the UK is three times higher than it was pre-pandemic, with 47% of individuals affected, following tough restrictions and constant messages of fear. The impact on many lives has been devastating. It seems clear that a focus on recovery is now needed, as well as an independent inquiry to establish how much of a role behavioural science played in increasing the nation’s anxiety and depression. We must ask the question: was it ethical to deploy covert psychological strategies on the British people? And looking forward, how should such techniques be used in the future, if at all?”

Co-chair Graham Stringer said: “I find it concerning that the Government, aided by advice from the SPI-B, embarked on a strategy that recommended increasing fear among those, who in SPI-B’s own words did “not feel sufficiently personally threatened” or were still “complacent”, to encourage adherence to the restrictions. Yet again we have witnessed an experimental policy rolled out without any understanding of the long term harms it could cause, particularly to young people.

“It is time for a thorough inquiry into how and why such unethical policies were so strongly pursued and why those on SPI-B, with professional expertise and understanding of ethics and the potential effects of deploying such behavioural-science ‘nudge’ techniques, acted in a seemingly irresponsible way.”

Speaking about how behavioural strategies often operate below people’s conscious awareness and frequently rely on inflating emotional distress to change behaviour, Dr Gary Sidley said: “From as early as February 2020, we knew Covid-19 did not pose a universal risk. That is still true today. The data was there and available to the Government and its advisors. Yet they still embarked on a particular narrative and chose to go down the route of scaring the entire population into believing we were all at equally high risk. I recall Michael Gove wrongly stating in March 2020 “the virus does not discriminate”. At the same time SPI-B produced its paper Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures. The die was cast. There was no deviation, lest it reduce compliance with the measures. The threat was ramped up with fear messaging as the covert psychological strategies were unleashed.

“I am of the view that the use of these behavioural strategies were disproportionate to the threat and raised profound moral and ethical questions. Many techniques were used but there were three ‘nudges’ which have caused me, and others in my profession, most alarm: the exploitation of fear and inflating perceived threat levels; shame by conflating compliance with virtue; and peer pressure by portraying non-compliers as a deviant minority.”

Professor Marcantonio Spada added: “In my work, I have seen how the effects of the constant fear and threat messaging have manifested themselves in people in a harmful way, for example obsessive hygiene habits, compulsively checking for symptoms or a fear/avoidance of public transport. These and other maladaptive behaviours characterise Covid-19 Anxiety Syndrome, which we first published research on in October 2020. It is a very real problem that may prevent many from returning to normal life.

“When the Government decided to deploy behavioural science techniques that deliberately inflated the threat and perceived fear of Covid-19 (in combination with lockdowns), it was always likely that a significant proportion of the population would develop psychopathological responses and end up locked into their fear or develop related forms of anxiety such as health anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviours. Data from March 2021 indicated that levels of generalised anxiety and depression in the UK were twice as high as they were pre-pandemic and higher than in several other developed economies. Similar findings were observed in July 2021. We are in the process of publishing a pan-continental study (Distaso, W., Nikčević, A. V. & Spada, M. M. Psychological distress and work and social adjustment in the COVID-19 pandemic: a cross-country analysis) detailing these findings. We need to carefully think about the consequences before such policies are pursued and consider never deploying them again.”

Notes to editors

For information about the APPG and its membership visit:

Biographies of people giving evidence

Dr Gary Sidley, a retired Clinical Psychologist, is a former Professional Lead/Consultant Clinical Psychologist after 33 continuous years of employment in the UK’s NHS. He began his career as a psychiatric nurse in 1980, and qualified as a clinical psychologist in 1989. In 2000, he obtained his PhD for a thesis exploring the psychological predictors of suicidal behaviour.

Laura Dodsworth is a writer, journalist and photographer, and author of the Sunday Times bestseller, 'A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic'.

Professor Marcantonio Spada is Professor of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health and Dean of the School of Applied Sciences at London South Bank University where he is also Deputy Lead of the Centre for Addictive Behaviours Research. Professor Spada also serves as both Editor-in-Chief of Addictive Behaviors and Addictive Behaviors Reports, and as Associate Editor of Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy. He is the author of over 175 international peer reviewed journal articles in the fields of mental health and addictive behaviours.

Darren was a police officer for 32 years. He was on the vulnerable list and received a letter from the NHS advising him to shield, as well as repeated texts about abiding by the restrictions.

Further comments from the panel

“I’ve done raids on criminal houses, I’ve carried firearms, I’ve gone through front doors at 4am, I’ve policed riots. I’m not saying I’m a tough nut, but not much throws me… for a long time I was frightened of everything: the world, the air, other people, physical objects, anything that could transmit the virus basically. Looking back, I can’t believe it was me. I think I became agoraphobic. I’m awfully angry about the fear now. I feel cheated. Ultimately I am angry at Parliament, not just the Government, because there was no real opposition to anything.  I’m angry at the media too and feel betrayed, they only publish one side of the argument. It was despicable that the Government tried to frighten us. Any other walk of life, you’d be arrested.” Darren, A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic by Laura Dodsworth.

View the full minutes for this meeting, held on Monday 28 February 2022.

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