Project Fear

Exams in Chaos as Invigilators Refuse to Return Over “Fears of Catching Covid”

Schoolchildren face further disruption in their exams this summer because of a shortage of invigilators, which unions are blaming on a fear of catching Covid in ‘unsafe’ school environments. MailOnline has more.

A warning from the Association of School and College Leaders says the shortfalls are having to be covered by other staff as well as parents on some occasions.

The union thinks the lower number of invigilators is down to them finding alternative work coupled with concerns over contracting coronavirus in schools.

But despite the ASCL sounding the alarm, the Department for Education said it was confident schools could cope – insisting they would have “robust plans in place”.

ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton said invigilator shortages meant schools had to train their own staff to do it.

He added: “It is also clear that there are sufficient difficulties in recruiting enough invigilators. It would obviously reassure these staff if free Covid testing was available for exam students and we once again appeal to the government to make this simple and obvious provision.

“We also have to question whether it is right to continue to subject young people to such a huge number of high-stakes terminal exams at GCSE as is the case in the current system.

“Stress and anxiety were already problems pre-pandemic. It must surely be possible to slim down the exam system and make it more proportionate and humane.”

Usually every 30 students need to have one invigilator covering them, but the number has been increased to 40 due to the shortfall.

Rules forbidding teachers from supervising their own subjects have also been relaxed.

Somehow I suspect that the main reason is the general worker shortage, while the gripe about Covid safety is just the usual OTT health and safety moaning from the unions.

Worth reading in full.

New Zealanders “Desperate to Leave” as Thousands Flee “Controlling and Fearful” Jacinda Ardern

Borders were opened to New Zealanders and Australians in February and March, and now visitors from around 60 countries, including Britain, can enter the country if they are vaccinated and test negative for COVID-19 before and after arriving. But while some tourists willing to brave the testing gauntlet are starting to trickle into the country, Kiwis are fleeing the country en masse. GB News has the story.

Government officials have estimated 50,000 New Zealanders will flee the country over the next year as the borders reopen after two years of Covid-19 restricting travel.

Speaking exclusively to GB News, Act Party leader David Seymour says Jacinda Ardern and her Government’s policies have resulted in New Zealand experiencing a level of despair not seen for years.

He said: “Don’t believe the hype. Anyone can quarantine a remote island, the hard part was always going to be reconnecting and getting our way of life back.

“At that, Jacinda Ardern’s Government has failed. Tragicomically, her own rules mean she herself is now forced to isolate and miss parliament despite testing negative because her partner has Covid.”

Mr Seymour says the country is going in the wrong direction, and Kiwis are desperate to properly reconnect with the world.

He added: “New Zealand faces a hangover from its Covid measures in the form of a cost-of-living crisis, like many countries. What is different here is the despair that comes from being lectured to and restricted while the rest of the world moves on.

“The Government has blown a 25-point lead to trail the opposition just 18 months from the election, and the majority of New Zealanders say our country is going in the wrong direction for the first time since the GFC.

“We are hearing the phrase brain drain for the first time in a decade, hospitals report their nurses are leaving. It is dismal and we could be doing so much better.”

A spokesman for popular Facebook group for New Zealanders living in Britain, “Kiwis in London”, told GB News it has experienced a surge of interest from Kiwis desperate to make the move to Britain: “The people are sick and tired of the controlling narrative along with the fear campaign that has engulfed the media and government messaging for the past two years.”

The toothy tyrant is losing her grip.

Worth reading in full.

The Toxic Perfectionism Young People Have Learned From Social Media and Covid Conformity

There follows a guest post by dental student Tom Shaw, who says the paralysing atmosphere of conformity that young people have learned from social media has been made much worse by the last two years.

From early on in dental school, it stumped me why I was one of the few people willing to answer questions in university lectures or practical classes, let alone volunteer my own questions. Why would I, or anyone else, waste £9,250 a year to sit in an awkward silence when it was either reasonably clear what the answer was or I could at least have a stab at answering it and learn something new if I was wrong.  Particularly in practical classes, with the answer often being on the handouts we’d been given or available in the session’s pre-reading, it seemed silly to waste time in pointless silence that could otherwise be spent learning the necessary technical skills that make a good dentist. Yet it seemed many of my peers did not subscribe to such a view on their higher education or, if they did, did not do a very public job of acting upon it.

Many scientists and software engineers point to the role that social media is likely having on young people, including on their mental development. I come from the first generation where such technology was ubiquitous throughout my adolescent years and, having lived through that, I can see how social media could contribute to the problem. Kids grow up with an environment in which everyone online appear as ‘model citizens’, who publicise only the highlights of their life and hide the rest to be forgotten to time. In this context, many understandably feel that making a mistake, whether online or in ‘real life’, must be avoided. This leads young people to be constantly thinking about how best to avoid or even eliminate a mistake.

In this mindset, not saying anything that might cause embarrassment and following the herd become highly attractive and young people end up instinctively pursuing what I can only describe as a toxic form of perfectionism. You must be seen as master of life, not for the sake of your own wellbeing, but for the appraisal of others to justify your inclusion in the world. Thus were you to venture to answer a question in class, will that define your image amongst your peers? Will that predispose you to more opportunities for failure than you would have otherwise? In a social media world which dissuades people from taking risks for fear of exposing their flaws, such an opportunity to engage intellectually appears as a threat.

The Anxiety Pandemic Created by SAGE’s Project Fear

There follows a guest post by Dr. Mark Stephen Nesti, a Chartered Psychologist, Consultant Performance Psychologist and former Associate Professor of Psychology in Sport, who is very concerned about the long term ramifications of the societal anxiety deliberately generated during the pandemic to increase compliance. He is author of Meaning and Spirituality in Sport and Exercise – Psychological Perspectives.

Much has been said about how fear has been used to drive the narrative and help impose restrictions on personal liberty we have faced during the pandemic. In this article I would like to suggest that anxiety, rather than fear itself, has become the much bigger concern, and one whose effects will haunt us for years to come.

If we take a step back for a moment, we can see that psychological language has been in the spotlight throughout the last two years. Some sections of the media and various bodies of experts have undoubtedly used their influence to generate fear in the general public. Although fear can paralyse our thoughts and actions, I believe that what we have actually been subject to has been a deliberate attempt to generate massive levels of societal anxiety. As a psychologist, I believe that anxiety, rather than fear, will turn out to be a major health problem facing individuals in the years ahead. Due to a number of complex factors operating at personal and community levels, the incidence of clinical and sub-clinical anxiety has never been higher in the U.K. population. The data to support this claim are well known, and yet, we have just been through a situation where psychologists on SAGE supported by others have deliberately stoked anxiety to increase compliance around various Covid measures.

Public Wants Government Held to Account Over Use of Fear in Pandemic, Poll Shows

The use of behavioural psychology in influencing public behaviour during the pandemic – a.k.a. Project Fear – must be part of the U.K. COVID-19 Inquiry, say 42% of the public, according to a new poll. A State of Fear author Laura Dodsworth has more.

An independent new survey by opinion experts Yonder for grassroots organisation Recovery has revealed that the terms of reference fail to address major public concerns. Although the draft terms bullet-point no less than 32 separate areas of focus for the Inquiry, key areas of concern are missing.

Recovery found that:

• 42% want the Inquiry to consider the use of behavioural psychology in influencing public behaviour during the pandemic.
• 40% want restrictions on the media examined, reflecting concern over whether the actions of Ofcom and the main broadcasters and social media platforms compromised freedom of speech.
• 60% want a specific focus on children to be included in the inquiry – there is currently no mention of impact of Covid measures on children.

Jon Dobinson who heads up Recovery said:

“There are obvious dangers in the unchecked use of sophisticated psychological techniques by Government to alter people’s behaviour without their knowledge or consent. Behavioural psychologists were given free rein during the pandemic and their controversial use of fear in particular has had serious consequences for mental health. The Inquiry must bring some overdue scrutiny to the work of the nudge unit: controls on its techniques are vital.”

Why Did Chris Whitty Go From Opposing Face Masks to Mandating Them With No New Evidence They Work?

One of the major frustrations throughout the COVID-19 crisis has been the failure of high-profile journalists to ask ministers and SAGE scientists challenging questions about the rationale for their – often unprecedented – decisions. When they were not baying for earlier and harder restrictions, the journalists who participated in the numerous coronavirus press conferences typically restricted themselves to questions seeking clarification about the detail of a new rule or imposition rather than imploring the experts to justify the reasoning that led to their non-evidenced diktats.

I am sure I’m not alone in fantasising about the sort of questions I would like to put to the key rule-makers responsible for this extraordinary two-year assault on our basic human rights. Consider, for instance, Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, and his belated support for requiring people to wear masks in community settings, arguably the most insidious of all the COVID-19 restrictions.    

This is not an academic issue. Thanks to the Government’s relentless messaging about the purported benefits of face coverings, there is a real danger that widespread community masking – with all the attendant physical, social, psychological and environmental harms – could become a permanent feature, at least in certain sections of our society.

Prof. Whitty’s track record on the contentious issue of masking healthy people is, like that of many of the high-profile political and scientific rule-makers, characterised by contradiction. In early March 2020, he unequivocally stated that healthy people should not be wearing face-coverings. One month later, he was faltering, saying that, “The evidence is weak, but the evidence of a small effect is there under certain circumstances”. Since this time he has supported – or, at least silently colluded – with the pro-mask lobby. What changed his mind? No robust evidence supporting mask efficacy emerged in spring 2020, nor any time since, so what ‘nudged’ him to relinquish his anti-mask stance?

To clarify the reasons for his change of mind, I would be keen to be given the opportunity to ask our Chief Medical Officer the following questions:   

Covid Propaganda: Understanding the Communication of Fear

It is interesting to consider just how different the past 18 months would have been without dozens of Government briefings and constant Covid ad campaigns. The propaganda pushed by the Government as part of its Covid response is the subject of an upcoming public lecture by Dr. Colin Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Political Communications at Nottingham Trent University, on September 13th at 7.30pm. He will argue that the Government has “more or less copied the British wartime propaganda strategy from World War II when dealing with Covid”.

In a previous blog post, which gives a taste of lecture’s content, Dr. Alexander writes that: “The best propaganda is the propaganda that the audience doesn’t realise is propaganda.”

The public information briefings that occurred at about 5pm each day from Downing Street during the first lockdown in spring and summer of 2020 were episodes in propaganda straight out of the wartime playbook. Rather than being ‘public information’ events as they were so described, they were in fact filled with ‘strategic communications’ intent on manipulating the public to the ends of the powerful. They were carefully staged, choreographed and scripted by spin doctors and other political communications professionals working for a Government that is addicted to propaganda and cannot fathom engagement in public communications through any other prism.

Furthermore, the U.K. Government’s approach to Covid briefings in the first half of 2020 may harm the long-term trust of the public in governance and the various organs of state that are entwined with the crisis. Public Health England, for example. Indeed, Chris Witty [Whitty], Patrick Valance [Vallance], Jenny Harries, et al – by standing next to the cabinet minister of the day – may end up tainted as manipulators-in-chief themselves through their (and the organisations that they represent) implicit endorsement of the Government’s approach to public communications.

Tickets for the event, which is free and which anyone can attend, are available here.

Government Infected by Its Own “Scaremongering Propaganda” Over Unlocking on June 21st, Says Professor David Paton

If the Government was truly following the science, it would not delay the lifting of lockdown restrictions beyond June 21st, according to David Paton. Instead, as the Professor of Industrial Economics at the University of Nottingham writes in today’s Mail, the mood at Number 10 is extremely pessimistic because our leaders have become infected by their own “scaremongering propaganda”.

Ministers told us that the vaccines were the route to freedom because they would protect the public and break the link between infections and hospitalisations. That has proved to be the reality.

Indeed, the contrast between the grim peak of the second wave and the vastly improved situation today is stark, despite the advent of new variants.

It is true that the number of cases is currently increasing – up from a low point at the end of April of about 19 positive tests per 100,000 people to 44 per 100,000 now – but the impact of the rise has been nothing like as devastating as previously.

NHS data shows that hospital admissions have risen somewhat from a low of 74 per day to the current average of 103 per day, yet at the peak in January we saw over 4,000 admissions on a single day.

There is even better news when it comes to the number of patients admitted to hospital in the last seven days. The latest figure of 869 is 0.6% down on the previous seven-day period, and nothing like the savage January peak of 34,336.

It is the same story with death rates, which are currently averaging 5.7 per day, up from a low of 4.3 per day, but that compares to a January peak of no fewer than 1,245 deaths on a single day…

Ignoring such hard data, some of the advocates of delay like to bolster their argument by citing the modelling done by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE), which sets out some pessimistic scenarios in the event of lockdown’s demise.

But there are two serious problems with this approach. First, SAGE’s record on modelling throughout the pandemic has been poor and overly negative. Second, it was the SAGE models themselves which formed the basis of the Government’s roadmap.

Even against the backdrop of the bleakest SAGE scenario, ministers initially maintained that the reopening on June 21st should proceed.

In fact, fully aware of the gloomiest SAGE projections, Boris Johnson explicitly stated on April 13th that “at the moment I cannot see any reason to change the roadmap”.

Given that the picture has turned out to be much healthier than anything SAGE projected, there would be no logic at all behind any delay. In their two scenarios closest to the Government’s roadmap, SAGE’s models indicated that there could be between 6,100 and 10,200 hospital patients by early June with more increases to come.

In fact, the present total of just 879 is only 14% of SAGE’s lower projection. So we are currently in a much better position than the Government envisaged…

At times it seems as if the Government has developed a bunker mentality, infected by its own scaremongering propaganda and SAGE’s shroud-waving.

But it is time to stop hiding behind the flawed models and fearful messages, embrace openness and get the country moving again without a delay. The real catastrophe would be a timid surrender to the voices of hesitancy and anxiety.

Worth reading in full.

“Covid Anxiety Syndrome” Preventing People from Returning to Normal Life, Says New Report

Fear whipped up over Covid by the Government and the media has resulted in millions of Brits struggling to return to normal life, according to a report which will warn that people are locking themselves down from within. Set to be published next month, the report identifies “Covid Anxiety Syndrome” as a condition which burdens many with a fear of public places and a need to maintain compulsive hygiene habits. Lucy Johnston in the Sunday Express has more.

Up to one in five is believed to have developed a “compulsive and disproportionate” fear of Covid, which would likely stay in place even if the virus disappeared completely. Warnings about the dangers of Covid have heightened the problem, and mixed messages about the level of danger have made it worse, said Marcantonio Spada, a Professor of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health at London’s South Bank University, who co-authored the report.

He said: “Our research suggests a number of people may not be able to return to normality even if the pandemic disappeared altogether. Worrying, checking others for symptoms, and avoidance have, over the months, gradually cemented a state of fear about the virus. Life has become restricted, and many people are experiencing a ‘psychological lockdown’ even if we are coming out of the physical one.”

The recently identified condition – Covid Anxiety Syndrome – is characterised by fear of public places, compulsive hygiene habits, worrying about the virus and frequent symptom checking. 

The findings from the study, which was undertaken in March and April 2021, showed 46% of people feared returning to public transport, 44% feared touching things, while 35% were checking their family members and loved ones for signs of Covid on a regular basis.

Professor Spada and co-author Ana Nikčević, Professor of Psychology at Kingston University, compared these recent findings to those they had collected in May 2020. They found the patterns to be broadly unchanged.

Overall one in five was “struggling with marked levels of maladaptive behaviour” related to the syndrome. Vaccination status – with around 35% of respondents being vaccinated – and a previous diagnosis of mental health condition did not appear to play a role in the severity of the syndrome which affects people from all professions and educational backgrounds.

Those affected are likely to represent the tip of an iceberg with many others suffering less severe anxiety related to fear of the virus making them feel threatened or afraid of returning to normal.

Professor Spada and his colleague are analysing a sample of 6,000 adults across China, Europe and the U.S. in collaboration with researchers from Imperial College to assess the global prevalence and impact of the syndrome. Results will be published by the summer, but preliminary indications show the syndrome is present across all countries surveyed to varying degrees.

Professor Spada said: “Our research suggests many people may struggle or may not return to normal even if the pandemic disappeared altogether.

“Avoidance locks you into fear. People are now locked down within despite the fall in infection rates and vaccine rollout. It appears that the syndrome affects people from all professions and educational levels.”

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: New polling from Ipsos MORI suggests it may be more than 20% of the population that’s suffering from Covid Anxiety Syndrome. It shows that 28% of British adults aren’t looking forward to “Greeting people with handshake/hug/kiss”, 27% aren’t looking forward to “going to large public gatherings such as sport of music events” and 24% aren’t looking forward to “Going to parties (such as weddings or birthday parties)”.

Fright Night

Today we’re publishing an excerpt from Laura Dodsworth’s new book, A State of Fear: how the UK government weaponised fear during the COVID-19 pandemic, which goes on sale today. Laura has already got a lot of coverage for her interviews with members of SPI-B, in some of which they confessed to misgivings about using behavioural psychology to terrify the British public. In this excerpt, which is the first chapter of the book, she discusses the oddness of Boris’s speech on March 23rd of last year when he broke the bad news about having to stay in our homes. Here is an extract:

What was it that felt ‘off’ about Boris Johnson’s speech? Johnson is a performer, but he normally performs the ‘likeable buffoon’. You would expect such an important speech to be rehearsed, but it felt too contrived and different to his normal presentation. He was controlled, stern, and at a basic level that was hard to pinpoint, it didn’t feel genuine.

I asked two experts to help me decode Johnson’s body language and style of speech.

Naomi Murphy is a clinical and forensic psychologist who has spent many years working in high-security prisons, often with people who don’t always tell the truth. She echoed my reaction: “His words and some of his body language convey one message, but you sense another message, and that rings alarm bells. He doesn’t seem authentic.” She pointed out that there were times when he was giving a message with his head and hands, bobbing his head forwards and gesticulating, but his body was held back, suggesting that personally he did not believe in the essence of his words.

An appearance of inauthenticity could have been simply down to nerves. It would be natural to feel nervous before such a momentous speech to the nation, and that affects behaviour and body language. As Murphy said, “you can hear his mouth is dry, which is incredible for someone who is used to the limelight. This is a man who likes being liked, and he might be worried that the public will not like him anymore.”

Neil Shah, founder of the Stress Management Society and International Wellbeing Insights, has delivered leadership training which includes how to read non-verbal communication. We watched the YouTube video of the speech remotely over a video call, so that he could analyse it blow by blow.

“Twenty-six seconds in and you can see the tension in his fingers,” Shah commented. “He is clenching so hard his knuckles turn white.” He pointed out Johnson was hunched and leaning forwards like he was holding on for dear life. I asked what it means when someone clenches their fists so hard. He told me it can be for emphasis, or as an aggressive gesture, but “it also looks like a tantrumming toddler. The way he is jabbing his fists at us shows tension.”

Johnson also gives the most awkward and uncomfortable smile when he talks about compliance. Shah added that “it’s almost threatening. We smile when things are funny, but also when we are nervous. When he said that no prime minister wants to do this, a grave look would have suited the moment better than a ghoulish grin.”

Like Murphy, Shah thought the Prime Minister didn’t believe everything he was saying: “There doesn’t seem to be congruence between his words and his body language. It suggests he is not speaking from the heart and doesn’t believe what he is saying.”

Worth reading in full – and you can buy Laura’s book from Amazon by clicking here.