We have to end the culture of fear to save young people’s lives

I HAVE been thinking about fear a lot recently and the power that it has to alter and control peoples’ behaviour.  

At the beginning of the week when I switched on my phone the first message I saw was from a colleague advising that one of their apprentices had taken his own life, he was twenty-one. That is the second time I have woken up to the news of the suicide of a young person since lockdowns began. By 11.00am on the same day another two suicides of family friends had been communicated. I felt numb with despair for what was happening.  

Fear without hope is overwhelming and for young people we are seeing a rise in mental health problems that is unprecedented.  

The Princes Trust reported that over 40% of young people are saying they do not see any future for themselves. Childline says its calls are inundated with teenagers who are suffering from anxiety and depression. And all of this is in response to a virus that we know is not especially dangerous to young people. However, the young are paying their own price – they are being told they must sacrifice their futures to protect the NHS and save the lives of their grandparents. Strangely one of the strongest protective factors in human beings is that of a parent for their child. So why suddenly are we standing back and accepting we deprive our children of their education, the ability to socialise with friends, the right to be outside playing sport, dancing and making music? 

For nearly a year now we have issued the message ‘Stay home’ ‘Cover your face’ ‘Keep your distance from others’; never before in my lifetime have I seen the population controlled in such an effective way. Never would I have believed that we would be willing to destroy peoples’ jobs, education and mental health, to separate us from our terminally ill relatives and prevent us from saying goodbye – and then argue that it was for our own good. It has been a phenomenally successful campaign of fear. The fear of the one thing we all have in common, death.  

Such is the use of behavioural psychology that the population has been subdued into submission. Anyone who cries foul or questions the logic of the approach is immediately attacked as being an extremist, a Covid-denier, an anti-vaccer, a lockdown-sceptic or even worse a ‘murderer’. Yes, I have received messages saying I am a murderer because I expressed concern at the Governments’ unwillingness to look at any science other than the vision of their own advisors. 

Worryingly those advisors have focussed on lockdown as the only solution to suppressing (and even suggested last year that they could eradicate) the Covid-19 virus. Despite numerous academic and scientific studies to the contrary, lockdown has become the Global response to dealing with this pandemic.  There are even those planning that we continue with lockdowns worldwide until Covid is extinguished – a futile and impossible task. 

For months now we have listened to daily accounts of how many people are ill, in hospital and have died from, or should I say, with Covid (or at least a Covid positive test in the last 28 days!). The numbers are overwhelming. Not since the war has the population had to face a death tally that cuts to the very core of their fear. The impact has been a level of compliance that is breath-taking. Removal of liberty and particularly the freedom within your home to see who you want would have been unthinkable only a year ago, so how did we change from being libertarians to little lambs? 

Faced with a virulent virus and scenes of hospitals being overwhelmed in China and Italy, experts advised our Governments that the death toll could be as many as 500,000 – a number no politician wanted to contemplate. The first fear of an unmanageable catastrophe with a huge death toll was in place. The scene was set to protect the NHS and the overwhelming instinct was to do everything possible to save lives. All focus was turned to fighting the virus. 

Over 60,000 clinicians and scientists signed the Great Barrington Declaration. A statement that argued the virus needed to circulate among the population to enable natural immunity to develop. But that meant accepting that some people would inevitably die from the virus and it seems there was no appetite to accept deaths as a means of moving forwards. No deaths from Covid was the gold standard and we would throw the kitchen sink at that challenge.  

The focus was then on how to stop the virus spreading. 

Prof Neil Ferguson (SAGE) was interviewed in The Times on 26th December 2020 and spoke about SAGE advisors reaction to China’s innovation of lockdowns saying, “it’s a Communist one party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought”…”And then Italy did it. And we realised we could”. 

And they have. By using everything they know about behavioural psychology. The very knowledge that has been accumulated to help people overcome their fears and rational or irrational physical responses has now been weaponised to manage a population and bring it to compliance. We have become lambs prepared to sacrifice everything on the altar of suppressing a virus. Yet we have now passed the 100,000 deaths of those ‘with’ Covid and the lockdowns show little sign of abating. We also know that suggestions of relaxation are regularly reversed at the eleventh hour. 

Normality seems distant, our thoughts and hopes have been reprogrammed like the man in solitary confinement who on being given an hours exercise in the yard feels gratitude for the freedom. The things we took for granted, seeing our families, singing in praise, playing sport or just enjoying the company of friends. These are simple pleasures that we dream of and will congratulate the government on returning to us. We are forgetting we are free, we are forgetting that our homes were once our castles, we are forgetting to question the governments’ decisions, we are forgetting to protect our young and put their futures first. 

Warm weather will bring some relief as the summer will exercise its natural virus suppression, and the vaccine rollout is being presented as the way out. But what of next year and the next virus? What have we learnt? 

The NHS has structural weaknesses that sees it under pressure every winter as a result of challenges from influenza and winter vomiting. Add on a pandemic virus and it is not hard to understand the stress experienced. 

So, we need to make changes, we proved we can build bed capacity by constructing temporary hospitals but we still had a staffing problem. We need to increase training and flexibility in our staff so we can adapt service delivery and quickly have a larger number of intensive care staff to meet need.  

We need to consider the idea of a reserve force so when you leave the NHS or retire you give 2-3 years retained service and can be called upon in times of emergency. Training days would be paid to keep you ready and responsive to backfill as staff are moved forwards to the intensive front line.  

We need to have effective separation between pandemic treatment and the continuation of priority healthcare. 

We need to understand the epidemiology of virus’, protecting the vulnerable without harming those who are not vulnerable to death. 

But most of all we must never again blind ourselves to the collateral damage to our children and young people by using behavioural approaches based on fear.

Before becoming a Member of the Scottish Parliament for the South of Scotland Michelle Ballantyne was a nurse and NHS manager of twenty-five years experience. In January Michelle became leader of Reform UK Scotland. 


This article is a longer version of an article first published in The Scotsman on 2 February.