The topic for this week’s note comes from a friend and someone I hugely admire – Laura Dodsworth. I did a podcast with Laura here (Ref 1). Laura wrote, in my view, the most important book of the Covid era. It was called “A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic.” It was published in May 2021.
When something new and uncertain emerges, (Covid-19 in the case of early 2020), the role of leadership is surely to reassure and unite populations. UK politicians and health officials initially adopted this stance. Chris Whitty has been Chief Medical Officer for England since 2019. In this video from spring 2020, Whitty said, “The chance of anybody watching this dying of coronavirus are (sic) actually low. Over the whole epidemic, even if we have no vaccine, a high proportion of people will not get this…” (Ref 2). Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Government Chief Scientific Advisor Patrick Vallance were similarly calm and reassuring in the early days (Ref 3).
The reassuring narrative sadly did not last long. The position of politicians and government officials shifted overnight to a deliberate strategy to instil fear. Back in 2020, I was reading minutes from government coronavirus meetings as soon as they became available. A document dated 22nd March 2020, entitled “Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures”, written by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour (SPI-B), said the following: “A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened… The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging” (Ref 4). This was reiterated in an academic paper, published online in May 2020 (Ref 5).