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The Telegraph had two interesting articles on coronavirus at the weekend.

The first is ‘Exclusive: UK vaccine passport plans to be scrapped’. I hope this is true.

Excerpts follow, emphases mine.

For months we have read that the Government is considering then dropping plans for a vaccine passport to be used for attending large events.

The Telegraph‘s article says:

Officials working on the review into Covid-19 status certification believe there is no chance the law will be changed to mandate their use within the UK.

“It’s not a case of ‘it’s finely balanced’. It’s not going to happen,” said one well-placed government source close to the review. “Everyone says it’s dead.”

Israel’s experience appears to have been a factor:

Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister overseeing the review, is yet to submit his recommendations to Mr Johnson. But sources close to both figures say they are instinctively reluctant to adopt the plans.

Furthermore, Israel, the country whose adoption of Covid-19 passports became the template studied closely by the UK (including a trip there from Mr Gove) will drop its “green pass” soon, because so many of its citizens are now vaccinatedThat decision has been carefully noted by ministers.

However, it is still possible that the pass could become a consideration later in the year:

Government ministers may also choose to look again at Covid-19 passports for the autumn and winter, arguing that a sudden deterioration in the Covid situation could see the idea return.

It is also possible that companies might be able to mandate them, particularly for international travel:

A government update on the review in April said there was nothing stopping companies asking for proof of Covid-19 status before granting entry, providing they do not breach equalities laws.

Work on the NHS app, which is being converted to be able to show proof of a jab, negative test or antibodies, is likely to continue, given that it is being used for international travel.

The second Telegraph article is an editorial, ‘How the state used behavioural science to scare a nation into submission’. The author, Laura Dodsworth, wrote a book, A State of Fear, a copy of which was sent to every MP:

donated by a group of concerned people and the Recovery campaign. In a letter to MPs, they described the book as ‘essential reading’ and questioned, as I do, the ethics of fear messaging and behavioural psychology.

Dodsworth rightly takes issue with Boris Johnson’s former special adviser Dominic Cummings’s view that the British people need to be controlled by Government:

Last week we learnt that Dominic Cummings believed the Covid-19 emergency would have benefitted from the “kingly authority” of data scientist, Marc Warner. This is exactly the style of authoritarian, top-down ‘state knows best’ style of government we need to move away from. It does not befit one of the cradles of democracy and the British people deserve better

Back in 2019, Mr Cummings predicted “The future will be about experimental psychology, and data science.” Well, the future is now. And the use of ‘nudge’ to encourage compliance with the rules has changed our lives and our relationships with each other, and irreversibly shifted the social contract between individuals and government.

However, this was already a topic over a decade ago, when Conservatives regained power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who are anything but liberal or democrats:

All of this was predicted in the report MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy, a Cabinet Office discussion paper from 2010. It warned: 

“People have a strong instinct for reciprocity that informs their relationship with government – they pay taxes and the government provides services in return. This transactional model remains intact if government legislates and provides advice to inform behaviour. But if government is seen as using powerful, pre-conscious effects to subtly change behaviour, people may feel the relationship has changed: now the state is affecting ‘them’ – their very personality.”

The nudge concept came, as most bad ideas do, from the United States, specifically the Obama administration.

Nonetheless, Prime Minister David Cameron instituted a ‘nudge’ unit at the heart of Government, known as SPI-B, which is part of SAGE. The ‘B’ stands for ‘behaviour’. It has been working throughout the coronavirus crisis:

You could argue that frightening people to make them follow the rules during an emergency was in our best interests. But what about the opposing arguments that it affected our personalities, our mental health and our agency?

The insufficiently fearful were deliberately alarmedHorror film styled advertising, laws to manage the minutiae of our daily lives, the most punitive fines since the Dark Ages, encouraging social conformity and the alarmist use of statistics were just some of the government’s tactics during the pandemic, signalling their lack of trust in the public’s ability to understand risk and behave sensibly.

Even children were not exempt from such blame. Indeed, they were explicitly targeted with messaging warning “Don’t kill granny.” This shocking slogan looks even more abhorrent given the allegations that the elderly were not tested before being transferred from hospital to care homes – who killed granny, exactly?

The next ‘nudge’ will probably involve climate change:

If you concede that behavioural science and the weaponisation of fear are acceptable tools for one crisis, will you accept them for the next? One recent report from a team at the University of Bath already shows how behavioural psychologists hope to segue from Covid to climate behaviour change while “habits are weakest and most malleable to change”. ‘Nudge’ is likely to play a bigger part in future government attempts to transform us into model citizens.

One wonders how successful that will be, given that climate change is far from the greatest worry on Britons’ minds at the moment.

It would be helpful to know exactly how much of our taxes go to maintaining the ‘nudge’ unit and the political persuasions of those working in it.

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