Following psychologists' criticism of authoritarian techniques of "deploying fear, guilt, and scapegoating" during pandemics, MPs have launched an inquiry.
It is “highly questionable whether a civilised society should knowingly increase the emotional discomfort of its citizens as a means of gaining their compliance" the signatories concluded.
" “Government scientists deploying fear, shame and scapegoating to change minds is an ethically dubious practice that in some respects resembles the tactics used by totalitarian regimes such as China, where the state inflicts pain on a subset of its population in an attempt to eliminate beliefs and behaviour they perceive to be deviant." the letter continued.
The Cabinet Office's "nudge unit" was founded in 2010 with the goal of applying behavioural science ideas to public policy.
It's been used to persuade people to pay their taxes, appear in court, even give their organs after they pass away.
They also criticised the use of "images of the acutely ill in intensive care units" on billboards and television commercials, as well as the "macabre mono focus on showing the number of Covid-19 deaths without mentioning mortality from other causes or the fact that, in normal circumstances, around 1,600 people die each day in the UK."
The "behavioural insights team" is its formal name, although nothing is known about how it works in practise.
During the pandemic, the unit was utilised to promote adherence to coronavirus restrictions.
"Look her in the eyes and tell her you never violate the rules," said one advertisement, which featured a close-up portrait of an intensive care patient wearing a mask."Look him in the eyes and tell him you always stay a safe distance," another advised.The letter referred to a March 2020 government paper that said that "the perceived degree of personal danger has to be heightened among those who are complacent" and asked for scarier messages.
As part of its probe of the government's operations during the epidemic, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, according to the Telegraph, will look into the usage of the behavioural insights team. It will take place on the two-year anniversary of the first lockdown.
"I believe the essential question is how 'nudge' falls inside legislative democracy and government responsibility," said William Wragg, the committee's chairman.
"Normally, determining where lines of responsibility exist between the law, MPs scrutinising the legislation, and the general public is rather clear.
"And there is a broader issue of how much falls outside of that approach in a parliamentary system."
The psychologists also cautioned that "scare advertisements" have had unexpected repercussions.
"Shaming and scapegoating have empowered others to harass individuals who are unable or unable to hide their faces," they said.
"More concerning, the elevated anxiety levels are likely to have played a role in the thousands of non-Covid fatalities that have happened in people's homes, with the strategically-increased worries deterring them from getting care for other ailments."