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Artillery Row

Why did behavioural scientists crave mask mandates?

The COVID pandemic exposed the nastiness of nudging

There is widespread recognition that the UK Covid-19 Inquiry will be the most expensive pantomime of all time. With a focus on the juvenile bickering of a few high-profile actors, and a failure to evaluate the legitimacy of imposing non-evidenced, and pervasively harmful, “pandemic” restrictions on the populace, it is shaping up to be forever known as a multi-million-pound whitewash to protect the dominant lockdown-and-jab Covid narrative. Nonetheless, if one has the time — and sufficient masochistic inclination — to sift through the details of the transcripts and witness statements of those presenting evidence to the Inquiry, new discoveries can be made regarding the individuals primarily responsible for the craziness seen throughout the Covid event. One such discovery is this: Professor David Halpern (the leader of the Behavioural Insight Team (BIT) — aka the “Nudge Unit” — energetically lobbied senior scientists and politicians to impose community masking upon British citizens in the early summer of 2020.

A previous article described how — in June 2020 — our ministers, senior scientists and medical leaders flipped from a stance of repeatedly imploring us all not to wear a face covering in community settings to a totalitarian one of imposing mask mandates. Also detailed in this exposé were the central roles played by DELVE  (a group of remote scientists outside of the formal SAGE advisory structure) and the Royal Society (a science academy who were staunchly pro-restriction throughout the Covid event). But — based on the evidence presented to the Covid Inquiry — it seems that commentators may have significantly underestimated the role played by Halpern, and his BIT associates, in the authoritarian mandates to compel healthy people to cover their faces with porous strips of cloth and plastic. 

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by these recent disclosures about Halpern’s promotion of face coverings; two newspaper reports of his pro-mask stance received substantial traction. In a January 2023 article in the Telegraph he describes how he deployed a normative pressure nudge on Boris Johnson in order to persuade the serving Prime Minister to wear a mask: “We did share with him a slide pack at one point. It had a series of images of pretty much every single world leader wearing a mask, and then a picture with him not.” Halpern went on to explain that this subliminal prod was used to point out that “a normal thing for a world leader to do right now is wear a mask”.  Also, his proclivity for masks apparently enables him to condone the intimidation of the non-compliant minority; in a more recent interview for the Telegraph’s “Lockdown Files” (Episode 4: 13 mins, 30 seconds), he is quoted as saying, “Behaviour is contagious … I remember seeing some people nearly coming to blows on a train because everyone else was wearing masks and this person wasn’t. You might not be comfortable with that but it is social pressure in action.”

Halpern’s Covid Inquiry testimony, however, starkly demonstrates his total commitment to the pro-mask religion. The fallacious assertion that asymptomatic transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be a major contributor to the propagation of a pandemic has played a crucial role in sustaining the pro-mask narrative — as in, if healthy people (as well as the ill) are contagious, we must all wear face coverings – and it appears that Halpern may have been promoting the idea of symptomless contagion several weeks before the first lockdown. In his witness statement, Halpern describes how — on the 22nd February 2020 — he attended a “private breakfast seminar” at the Royal Society of Medicine, and had “private discussions” with the president of this institution, where he discussed “key points that … should be communicated to the public” regarding “areas of uncertainty in aetiology & transmission of the virus”. In the aftermath of these clandestine liaisons, Halpern states that he sent Professors Whitty and Vallance (Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Officer, respectively) details of an Italian study that, purportedly, provided evidence on the importance of asymptomatic transmission.

A month later, Halpern — and his BIT “nudgers” — were urging the higher echelons of the UK Government to impose mask requirements in community settings. In the words of his witness statement:

On the 31st of March 2020, my team and I prepared and shared a note on “Why the UK general public should use facemasks”. This was an internal note, shared with No. 10, that argued that the UK position on facemasks at that time was wrong, and they should be considered as part of the strategy to unlock the UK.

Bearing in mind that this lobbying occurred ten weeks before the imposition of the first UK mask mandate on the 15th of June, it is reasonable to wonder if Halpern, and his band of behavioural scientists, played a significant role in the draconian decision to muzzle the British people.

But there’s more. As if this level of energetic commitment to the pro-mask cause was not enough (particularly for a non-biological scientist), by June 2020 Halpern’s clamouring for this poorly evidenced and authoritarian intervention reached new heights. At this point, he took it upon himself to liaise with a Government science and defence technology organisation to garner support for face coverings. According to Halpern, the “BIT arranged the testing of masks at Porton Down, and found that even cloth masks were effective” and he believed these results to be so important that he “sent them directly to Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and Simon Case”.

Why do behavioural scientists covet mass masking?

Many readers will already be familiar with other pro-mask disciples: Professor Susan – let’s wear masks forever – Michie; Professor Trish – “the search for perfect evidence may be the enemy of good policy – Greenhalgh; and media darling Devi Shridar, who recently told the Covid-19 Inquiry that masks should have been brought in sooner because “masks … work on construction sites so of course they work”. I think we can now add Halpern to this list.

Why did behavioural scientists covet mass masking? Their strengthening of the idea that nudges lever compliance with top-down restrictions no doubt played a part. And their admiration of Eastern cultures, with their greater willingness to conform, may have also been a factor. Whatever the reasons, one wonders how they reconcile their mask advocacy with the growing recognition that imposing face coverings on healthy people was one of the more irrational, and damaging, of all the Covid restrictions.

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