Two cheers and lots to do
We should all be happy to see Covid restrictions disappear around the world. Thanks in part to campaigning by Recovery, the UK has led the way out of the pandemic. Two cheers for that.
However, the threat of new lockdowns and restrictions has not gone away – we could see them as soon as when a new variant appears. There’s a long way to go if we’re to prevent the mistakes of the last two years being repeated
Even now, many serious threats to our way of life remain – some have hardly been discussed.
It is vital to ensure that the right lessons are learned. So Recovery will ensure that experts get a platform, highlight key data, hold decision-makers to account, and share important but overlooked stories.
Recovery’s aim today
Recovery was set up during the lockdowns and restrictions of Covid-19 to argue for a more rational, less damaging response based on our Five Reasonable Demands: five safeguards for our communities and society which were backed by the overwhelming majority of the UK public.
Now that restrictions are easing, our goals are to ensure that they’re gone for good; all the damaging measures associated with them are removed; and the right lessons are learned.
It was wrong to abandon our rights and values in panic. We can now see that doing so actually worsened the suffering and damage caused by Covid-19. Understanding where mistakes were made will stop that happening again.
Dangerous threats remain
In some areas, the legacy of lockdowns still lies heavy.
The Government’s use of so-called ‘nudge’ tactics to influence public behaviour is one example. ‘Nudge’ is a rebranding of what was once called brainwashing – the use of sophisticated psychological techniques to control and alter behaviour without the conscious knowledge of the individual.
When Covid-19 arrived, behavioural psychologists explicitly called for fear to be increased to encourage compliance with the rules. Mental health experts now link this to a rise in anxiety-related disorders.
Although there has never been a public debate around the use of such tactics, they have become increasingly important to the Government in many areas. Decision-making and campaigns are increasingly shaped by these psychologists, who work to manipulate people into acting and thinking in ways that the Government approves. Indeed, they have such influence on SAGE that when Covid-19 arrived, they outnumbered any other discipline.
Yet we have little insight into what was discussed by these groups, since little is in the public domain. It’s disturbing that the Government relied so heavily on unregulated and unchecked psychological control to gain public support for its approach.
We simply do not know more than the most basic details of the techniques they used, the intent behind them, what checks (if any) were imposed, the science that they were based on, the immediate and longer-term effects on mental health, and the degree of control exerted.
To what extent is this kind of psychological manipulation compatible with a free society and democratic decision-making? If expert psychologists influence your choices without your consent, are they really your own choices – or do we risk creating a society of puppets and masters?
Similarly, big questions remain over freedom of speech. Harsh curbs during Covid-19 saw legitimate views labelled ‘disinformation’. Some of our most eminent experts in fields like epidemiology found their reputations trashed simply because they did not back the official line.
Had this debate been conducted openly and fairly, we would have made fewer mistakes and the damage done by the pandemic would likely have been minimised.
Freedom of speech is not a luxury to be abandoned in difficult times: public debate is the way that we arrive at better outcomes. Yet there has been no debate over the measures taken, nor has anything changed.
Worse, control of what could be broadcast was handed to self-appointed and unaccountable organisations with a clear conflict of interest: something that should never have been allowed.
Ofcom and the BBC turned to so-called ‘Fact Checkers’ who were given the power to label stories around covid as ‘disinformation’. Their work was plainly biased, with even the most minor online individuals opposing lockdowns singled out for attack while mistakes in major broadcast appearances by proponents of lockdowns were ignored. Some of the decisions were downright wrong.
These ‘fact checkers’ were funded by giants of digital media who made billions of dollars from lockdowns, which moved commerce from the high street to their platforms. They silenced criticism of policies from which their sponsors made fortunes: that cannot be right.
No-one has been held to account. Instead, the new online harms bill threatens to hand them more powers and curtail freedom of speech further. It creates a duty to shut down whatever is labelled as ‘legal but harmful’ debate.
On 27 March 2020, Ofcom wrote to broadcasters that they must not report “medical or other advice which …discourages the audience from following official rules and guidance” or risk ‘statutory sanction’ – which can include taking a broadcaster off air. Ofcom went on to stress that,
“There is a particular need for factual statements about Coronavirus to be presented with appropriate care…In particular, we strongly advise you to take particular care when broadcasting statements that seek to question or undermine the advice of public health bodies on the Coronavirus, or otherwise undermine people’s trust in the advice of mainstream sources of information.”Letter from the Ofcom Standards Team to broadcasters, 27/3/2020
Mainstream broadcasters interpreted this to mean that accurate information which might undermine compliance with Government policy should not be reported, unless to attack it. That is, after all, what it says.
Though Ofcom has argued otherwise, its actions throughout the pandemic are hard to reconcile with its over-riding statutory duty to ensure freedom of speech. Imagine how the ‘legal but harmful’ definition could have silenced our campaign, prevented legitimate debate, and facilitated even more damaging restrictions.
Recovery needs you
Recovery will campaign on issues like these. There’s a huge amount at stake. Our supporter base makes sure our voice is heard by sharing content and ma king its views known. We rely wholly on donated funds: your help makes everything possible.
As a supporter, you have already played a part in getting the UK through Covid-19. Now we need you to ensure that we do not repeat the disastrous measures of 2020-21.
Change is within reach
Recovery was launched in October 2020 to campaign for a better approach to Covid-19. We argued for restraint over lockdowns and restrictions. Though our concerns were bitterly attacked amidst the panic of the time, they are widely seen in hindsight as wise and right.
Indeed, many of our most bitter critics now claim that they actually backed them all the time.
We proved that change is possible. A Recovery meeting in the House of Commons was a catalyst for the launch of the parliamentary Covid Recovery Group, which did so much to challenge bad policy and critique restrictions.
The Government ultimately accepted key Recovery demands, such as our call that the damage done by any measure should be assessed against its benefits. Sensible steps such as this helped to prevent some of the over-reaction seen in other parts of the world.
So much damage went unchecked: it often felt as though we were banging our heads against a brick wall. But what we did mattered. Now our focus is on the huge amount left still to do.
The more of us that campaign today, the more likely it is that the right lessons will be learned. Sometimes, it takes just one person, one conversation to tip the balance.
When you add your voice to ours, it matters. We welcome your support.