A minister has denied the UK government tried to scare the public into following COVID-19 lockdown rules after leaked messages suggest former Health Secretary Matt Hancock wanted to “frighten the pants off everyone” in order to ensure compliance.
The latest set of WhatsApp exchanges, published in The Sunday Telegraph, shows how Hancock and other officials discussed using an announcement about the Kent variant of the virus to scare the public into changing their behaviour.
The messages, among more than 100,000 passed to the Telegraph by journalist Isabel Oakeshott, also show that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case suggested in January 2021 that the “fear” factor would be “vital” in persuading people to follow lockdown rules.
But government minister Chris Heaton-Harris denied that it was a government strategy to frighten the public during the pandemic.
The Northern Ireland secretary told the BBC: “I think the government strategy was to try and protect the British public as best it possibly could … and to try and give as much information as it possibly could at the right times.”
‘Frighten the Pants Off Everyone’
In a Dec. 13, 2020, exchange between Hancock and an aide, the then-health secretary’s adviser said, “Rather than doing too much forward signalling, we can roll pitch with the new strain.”
Hancock responded: “We frighten the pants off everyone with the new strain.”
“Yep that’s what will get proper behaviour change,” the adviser said.
“When do we deploy the new variant,” Hancock then asked.
On the following day, Hancock announced that a new COVID-19 variant had been identified in the UK.
The government said on Dec. 19 that London and southeast England were to enter a new Tier 4 alert level, and a promised Christmas “bubbles” policy allowing families to meet was cancelled.
The whole of England entered the third national lockdown on Jan. 6, 2021.
‘Fear/Guilt Factor Vital’
Messages from Jan. 10, 2021, show Hancock and the Cabinet secretary discussing ways to ensure compliance.
Hancock told Case that he “honestly wouldn’t move on any small things unless we move on a lot.”
Case agreed: “I think that is exactly right. Small stuff looks ridiculous. Ramping up messaging—the fear/guilt factor vital.