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Project Fear’s ‘psychological warfare’ must never be repeated, say lockdown rebels

- THE TELEGRAPH - Dominic Penna, POLITICAL REPORTER - March 5, 2023 -

Group of Conservative MPs and experts condemn use of scare tactics to submit people into following strict Covid rules

The ‘Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives’ campaign was one method used to force people to follow strict Covid rules CREDIT: Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty Images

The “psychological warfare” of Project Fear used during the pandemic to frighten the public into following rules must never be repeated, leading Tory lockdown rebels and scientific experts have warned.

Leaked messages seen by The Telegraph showed that in December 2020, Matt Hancock, the health secretary at the time, suggested that the Government “frighten the pants off everyone” to ensure strict Covid rules were adhered to.

Sir Charles Walker, who was a leading member of the Covid Recovery Group of Conservative backbenchers, said that he was distressed by the leaked conversations.

“What makes me so angry is the evils and the psychological warfare we deployed against young people and the population, all those behavioural psychologists,” he told The Telegraph.

“And there needs to be a reckoning. We need to understand and fully appreciate the damage that those sorts of campaigns did.”

Sir Charles lamented Parliament going “missing in action” as most MPs waved through dozens of Covid restrictions with little debate.

He said: “Those voices that raised concerns were just othered. We were positioned as being anti-lockdown, Right-wing headbangers. And actually wanting to do the right thing isn’t Right-wing.

We did terrible things to youngsters. We did terrible things to a large number of people. We need to make sure we never do those things again.”

A former minister who served in Boris Johnson’s government during all three lockdowns said it was “clear now that many mistakes were made”.

“It’s really important that we make sure that should any event like this ever happen again, we take all steps we can to preserve as much liberty as we possibly can, rather than take a risk-averse, safety-first approach,” they said, branding school closures “diabolical”.

Craig Mackinlay, the Tory MP for South Thanet, added: “An artificial climate of fear was created, which has led to all the corollary outcomes that many of us, particularly in the Covid Recovery Group, were concerned about.

“Ongoing negative health issues, education issues – and not least the destruction of our economy, as one crackpot idea after another found its way onto the statute book.”

Sir John Redwood, another member of the Covid Recovery Group, said the tactics ministers used “always backfire, they always mislead and they don’t lead to good government”.

Steve Baker, the Northern Ireland Office minister who led revolts against restrictions as a backbencher, retweeted 19 tweets he sent while lockdowns were in place.

His posts set out both the economic and mental health damage caused by restrictions and called for a new Public Health Act, including reform to modelling.

Prof Karol Sikora, a medical expert who specialises in oncology, insisted there was “no doubt” some cancer patients were frightened to the point they did not seek treatment.

Speaking to Camilla Tominey, The Telegraph’s Associate Editor, on her GB News politics programme, Prof Sikora said: “I was horrified when I read the WhatsApp messages. I am really looking forward to the public inquiry, but it’ll be a whitewash.”

Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, blamed a mix of “mission creep” and “expertise creep” for a response dominated by groupthink.

“It was wrong in every sense to make younger people scared of a virus that we knew very early on was of very limited risk to them,” he told The Telegraph.

“It’s not acceptable to most people to actively lie to people by stoking up fear. There was this narrative of doing all we can to save lives at all costs, which means of course you’re causing really significant harm downstream.

“If we’re ever faced with another Covid-type situation, it would be impossible to do full-blown cost-benefit analysis immediately, but you can ensure processes are in place to ensure different voices are heard.”

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