Look me in the eyes and tell me this was ethical
At the end of April, the newly elected Chairman of the Board of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) wrote to the Prime Minster, the Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP, “condemning the use of unethical psychological techniques/behavioural science on the unknowing and non-consenting UK public”. This is significant, because to my knowledge, the various membership bodies for the psychological professions in the UK stayed conspicuously silent during the Covid-19 pandemic, failing to question any of the extreme, psychologically-damaging and profoundly inhuman measures introduced by most governments in the developed world.
As early as 12th March 2020, before the first lockdown, the then Prime Minister said of the new virus, “this is a mild illness for most people” (The Guardian, 12th March 2020). We already knew who was most vulnerable to the pathogen - and yet for two years, the entire population was subjected to “unethical psychological techniques intended to elicit fear, shame and guilt… It is now clear that in 2020 the UK government deliberately chose to inflate the level of fear within the UK population by exaggerating the risk factors of Covid 19… and concomitantly downplaying the protective factors… These techniques were…designed to change the public’s behaviour without their knowledge” (Open letter to Rishi Sunak from UKCP Chairman, 28th April 2023).
We now know, courtesy of his own published WhatsApp messages, that the then Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock MP, had concluded “We frighten the pants off everyone…” (The Daily Telegraph, 10th March 2023). How can deliberately and unnecessarily frightening people be an ethical response to any situation? We also know that any health professionals or scientists who put forward alternative plans for protecting the public were “suppressed, censored and ostracised”. When facing a serious and evolving situation, requiring the input of the best minds in numerous fields of endeavour, the contribution of anyone who thought differently was rejected out of hand. When that sort of groupthink takes hold, we are always going to be heading in a dangerous direction.
The late Queen once enquired, of a group of over 300 eminent economists, why none of them had seen the financial crash of 2008 coming. The Director of Research at the London School of Economics apparently replied, “At every stage, someone was relying on somebody else and everyone thought they were doing the right thing” (Daily Telegraph, 5th November 2008). Doesn’t this sound familiar? At no point during the pandemic, it seems, did anyone stop to look at the whole picture - and carry out a proper cost benefit analysis. For far too long, the tip of the iceberg - or the peak of the Covid infection graphs - was all that mattered. Taking a broader view might have pin-pointed the widespread and much greater harm lurking under the water.
As the Covid tide has receded, these underwater dangers have now been exposed. The negative effects of lockdown generally, school closures, the abandonment of the needs of care home residents, the paralysis of wider health and social services and mask mandates have been widely documented, although there still seems to be a widespread reluctance among the powers-that-be even to acknowledge this, let alone take responsibility for it. We see soaring levels of “mental health” and behavioural issues. As an essay by Dolly Sen in the excellent book Drop the Disorder (PCCS Books) makes clear, “most mental health difficulties are not about broken brains but broken hearts”. It is all about what has happened to us, not about what is “wrong” with us.
Let us think for a minute about what happened. Seeing appalling pictures of illness and suffering on television, first from China and then from Northern Italy, our government panicked, along with many others around the world. As ever, they were also keen above all to be seen to be doing what people might think was the right thing, regardless of whether or not it actually was the best course of action.
When we panic, we lose the ability to rationalise and to listen to other people. We now know that this applies as readily to governments as to individuals. During the pandemic, the government repeatedly took worst case scenarios, often from modelling rather than real life data, and used them deliberately to terrify the public into obedience. In doing so, one vitally important fact was overlooked. Human beings are generally pretty good at assessing risk (teenage boys perhaps excepted). When people really believe that they are at high risk of serious illness or death, there is no need to ramp up the fear. The vast majority of people will act in their own best interests, and those of their families and friends, quite voluntarily.
Of course those at increased risk of disease needed to be warned about how best to protect themselves, and the rest of us should have been advised about how best we could help and support them. Nobody, however, needed to see a poster of a seriously ill man with the strap-line “look him in the eyes and tell him the risk isn’t real”. No child needed to be told that they might inadvertently kill their granny. It was a disgraceful and utterly irresponsible message with which to saturate the media - and one which unfortunately lingers in the mind, as of course it was intended to do. Is it any surprise that “anxiety” among the young and “loss of confidence” among older people are two of the most common issues now in the counselling room?
It is worth looking at another aspect of this campaign of fear. In such a climate, could individuals make a truly informed choice about whether or not they wished to receive an experimental vaccine, which had been rushed out in record time, when personal risk from the illness was minimal? What started as a perfectly reasonable campaign to protect the elderly and the vulnerable suddenly expanded to cover just about everyone - including school children whose general risk from Covid-19 was negligible. Young people are more likely to have an “adverse event” from the vaccine than the illness. How was this ethical?
Just to hammer home the message, we then had Covid passports and could only travel if vaccinated - despite the fact that, by this point, we knew that the vaccines were ineffective in preventing transmission. Still government propaganda played on the selfishness of individuals in failing to protect others, by not being vaccinated. To pretend that initial Covid vaccination was voluntary for anyone wishing to live a remotely normal life is disingenuous.
As Dr Christian Buckland, who wrote the open letter to Rishi Sunak, makes clear, “the need to hold tightly to professional ethics, in particular to the ethical principle of informed consent, is not just an ‘academic’ issue. It is a matter of practical and fundamental importance for responsible government”. The proposed WHO Pandemic Preparedness Treaty adds urgency to this. How are we going to hold unelected, supranational bodies to account, if we cannot hold our own government responsible for its actions? Like Dr Buckland, I would like to see an open and independent inquiry into what happened, and the re-establishment of an ethical framework necessary to protect the public and provide accountability. In a democratic state, we can never again be dictated to - or manipulated - by fear.