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The use of fear to control behaviour in the Covid crisis was ‘totalitarian’, scientist group admits

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Members of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour have expressed regret about ‘unethical’ methods used to control behaviour in Covid crisis and admitted they should be considered ‘totalitarian’.

Scientists on a committee that encouraged the use of fear to control people’s behaviour during the Covid pandemic have admitted its work was “unethical” and “totalitarian”.

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Members of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour (SPI-B) expressed regret about the tactics in a new book about the role of psychology in the Government’s Covid-19 response.

The group warned in March last year that ministers needed to increase “the perceived level of personal threat” from Covid-19 because “a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened”.

Gavin Morgan, a psychologist on the team, said: “Clearly, using fear as a means of control is not ethical. Using fear smacks of totalitarianism. It’s not an ethical stance for any modern government. By nature, I am an optimistic person, but all this has given me a more pessimistic view of people.”

The government has faced a barrage of criticism and been accused of ramping up the threat from the pandemic to justify lockdowns and coerce the public into abiding by them.

This claim is set to be examined by the forthcoming public inquiry into the pandemic response.

SPI-B is one of the sub-committees that advises the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), led by Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser.

One SPI-B scientist told Ms Dodsworth: “In March [2020] the Government was very worried about compliance and they thought people wouldn’t want to be locked down. There were discussions about fear being needed to encourage compliance, and decisions were made about how to ramp up the fear. The way we have used fear is dystopian.

“The use of fear has definitely been ethically questionable. It’s been like a weird experiment. Ultimately, it backfired because people became too scared.”

Another SPI-B member said: “You could call psychology ‘mind control’. That’s what we do… clearly we try and go about it in a positive way, but it has been used nefariously in the past.”

One warned that “people use the pandemic to grab power and drive through things that wouldn’t happen otherwise… We have to be very careful about the authoritarianism that is creeping in”.

Steve Baker, the deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Conservative MPs, said: “If it is true that the state took the decision to terrify the public to get compliance with rules, that raises extremely serious questions about the type of society we want to become.

“If we’re being really honest, do I fear that Government policy today is playing into the roots of totalitarianism? Yes, of course it is.”

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