The Covid Inquiry: Further insights into the murky world of Behavioural Science

State level psychological abuse affectionately known as ‘nudge’

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Although the ongoing Covid-19 Inquiry increasingly resembles an expensive pantomime designed to support the dominant lockdown-and-jab pandemic narrative, scrutiny of the extensive witness transcripts can be informative as to the actions of key actors. Such is the case with the behavioural scientists, in particular those operating within the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) – a subgroup of SAGE that advised the Government on its Covid-19 communications strategy.

On the 18th of October 2023, two former co-chairs of the SPI-B, Professors James Rubin and Lucy Yardley, gave evidence to the Inquiry. Analysis of the corresponding transcripts provides further insights into the government’s behavioural scientists, in regards to both their activities, motivations, and the way they were perceived by others.

Predictably, both Ruben and Yardley claimed that the SPI-B was in no way responsible for deploying fear inflation and other ethically dubious nudges as a means of levering compliance with Covid restrictions and the subsequent vaccine rollout. As discussed in a previous HART article, these belated appeals of innocence by expert government advisors are unconvincing. However, it is difficult to answer questions (even gentle, ingratiating ones) for several hours without letting slip a few previously unknown details about one’s beliefs and actions, and the testimonies of these SPI-B co-chairs have provided five intriguing insights into the murky world of Covid messaging and communication.     

1.  Professor Susan Michie was primarily responsible for the SPI-B paper recommending fear inflation

The notorious SPI-B minutes of the 22nd of March 2020 stated:  

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’.

During his interview with the inquiry, Rubin revealed that Professor Susan Michie – a member of the SPI-B, SAGE and the communist party – had the lead role in compiling these minutes. Michie’s central involvement in endorsing fear inflation (an ‘affect’ nudge) during the Covid event should not come as a surprise; she has been an enthusiastic promoter of community masking, a non-evidenced restriction that perpetuates fear, and currently holds a senior position in the World Health Organisation, a body well versed in spreading alarmist messages to encourage compliance with globalist agendas.

2.  SPI-B members believed their advice was not sufficiently influential

Despite occupying the privileged position of main formal advisory group on government communications throughout the Covid event, both Rubin and Yardley believed that the outputs of the SPI-B were often less influential than they would like.

In his interview Rubin laments that, by May/June 2020, the SPI-B was being ‘cut out of involvement with government communication’ and that much of his group’s advice disappeared down a ‘black hole’. Apparently, a major beef of the SPI-B behavioural scientists concerned the change in emphasis of the Covid messaging campaign from the ‘Stay at home, Protect the NHS, Save lives’ mantra to the ‘Stay alert’ version, and Rubin’s impression was that ‘many participants felt that the advice we had given on issues such as the clarity needed in messaging just wasn’t being seen in the output from government communications’. Perhaps the ‘Stay alert’ phase was insufficiently scary and shame-inducing for the SPI-B’s liking?

Yardley also bemoans the group’s lack of impact, saying that ‘the communications tended to go ahead with very little input from SPI-B, even though we were very happy to advise’.

3.  There were tensions between the various factions of behavioural science advisors

Throughout the covid event, policymakers within government had easy access to an array of behavioural scientists. In addition to the SPI-B group, they were secreted in a range of locations: the ‘Behavioural Insight Team’ (aka Nudge Unit); the UK Health Security Agency; the in-house communications teams within the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health & Social Care; and as employees of the advertising companies commissioned to produce the pandemic messages. The inquiry transcripts reveal – perhaps inevitably given their abundance – that there were tensions and resentments between them regarding any perceived favourable access to the political decision makers.

The most prominent example of these strains is captured in an email from a member of the Cabinet Office communications team to Yardley, responding to the SPI-B’s expressed concerns about the ‘Stay alert’ phase of the messaging campaign. The email reads:

The messages in this instance are kept so elusive by a small group of mainly No10 advisers — these are agencies that have won their political campaigns and are now supporting this one too. My team was never consulted either and as soon as I heard the message I flagged our concernsI am so sorry that despite being the behavioural scientists inside the government communications service we don’t have a handle on this either. It’s so often partially political and in this case I was also told they wanted to keep it deliberately small so that there’s not too many cooks’.

One is left with the impression of factions of status-conscious nudgers competing to be perceived as the superior source of behavioural science expertise.

4.  The SPI-B was perceived very negatively by some senior civil servants and politicians

Back in January 2021, at a meeting of the Health & Social Care Committee, Dominic Cummins (a chief advisor to Boris Johnson from July 2019 to November 2020) expressed scathing views of behavioural scientists. In response to questions from Jeremy Hunt, Cummins described them as ‘charlatans’, claimed that they produced ‘duff studies and memes’ and accused them of contributing to the ’false groupthink’. A similar – albeit more restrained – appraisal of the SPI-B was given by Lee Cain (a Director of Communications) in his Covid Inquiry interview on the 31st October 2023; Cain ‘didn’t find particularly helpful’ and ‘disagreed with’ the contributions of the behavioural scientists.

These negative perceptions of the SPI-B were, in some respects, understandable. As confirmed in Rubin’s Covid Inquiry interview, by June 2020 eight SPI-B’s members had joined the zero-Covid extremists at Independent SAGE , a group outside of the government infrastructure who were actively campaigning for earlier, longer and more draconian restrictions. As stated in Rubin’s transcript, Patrick Vallance (the government’s chief scientific advisor) at the time described it as ‘an odd thing to do & may cause problems … totally inappropriate’. Government departments were ‘very wary’ of putting anything to SPI-B because of ‘leaks or misuse’. Indeed, the Rubin interview also reveals that the Government set up a ‘leak inquiry’ in relation to the SPI-B because of disclosures to The Guardian newspaper by some of its members. Even Rubin himself acknowledged that ‘The decision in June 2020 of multiple participants of SPI-B to join a subgroup of independent SAGE took me by surprise and put us in an awkward position’.

5.  The SPI-B strived to distance itself from the ‘nudgers’

Perhaps as a consequence of the competitiveness between the various groups of behavioural scientists, and/or the growing ethical concerns surrounding the state’s use of nudges in their Covid messaging campaign, Rubin attempted to distance his forum from this – often covert -form of persuasion.

When asked at the Inquiry whether the SPI-B was a ‘Nudge Unit’, Rubin said:

Instead of nudging, SPI-B’s work focused on providing support to people to help them to engage with the measures that were openly recommended by public health experts … SPI-B didn’t consider those (i.e. nudge) options, or rather it wasn’t a focus for us’.

In what might reasonably be construed as a pitch for academic superiority, Rubin goes on to state that the ‘SPI-B looked at the science of communication whereas these [other teams] were working on the operationalisation of that science’.

Remarkably, Rubin also claimed that his group never promoted nudges: ‘I can’t think of any actual examples where we did recommend them in our papers’. This is plainly at odds with the SPI-B’s published outputs within which they encouraged the use of fear (‘affect’ nudge), described compliance with restrictions and the vaccination rollout as akin to virtue (‘ego’ nudge) and urged the harnessing of peer pressure to change the behaviour of a dissenting minority (‘normative pressure’ nudge). As an aide-memoir, HART would like to offer three examples taken from SPI-B advisory documents:

1.  Recommendation of ‘affect’ nudges: ‘The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging’ (SPI-B, March 2020).

2.  Recommendation of ‘ego’ nudges: Vaccinated people ‘will be willing to continue to adhere to rules and guidance … if they are made aware that this is still necessary to protect others’ (SPI-B, December 2020).

3.  Recommendation of ‘normative pressure’ nudges: ‘Government should consider how to encourage adherence to protective behaviours through broader social norms (as in many east Asian countries)’ (SPI-B, February 2022).

Despite the Covid-19 Inquiry’s lack of impartiality, as indicated by the dearth of challenging questions directed at the interviewees, the transcripts of Rubin and Yardley have provided some new insights into the perceptions and activities of the behavioural scientists during the Covid event. At the end of the Rubin interview – and true to form – Lady Hallett (the ‘independent’ chair of the inquiry) said:

It’s unfortunate that your expert advice was sometimes misinterpreted, misunderstood or even possibly ignored. But I hope you and your colleagues understand how much the rest of us appreciate what you tried to do’.

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