“The government has been gaslighting the British public throughout the pandemic – enough’s enough”

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Lauren Geall
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Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson at the UK government's first cabinet meeting after summer recess

Matt Hancock’s latest comments about too many people getting tested for coronavirus are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the government’s gaslighting of the British public throughout the pandemic. 

Watching Matt Hancock speak on BBC Breakfast this morning, I had to pinch myself to check that I wasn’t dreaming. After (another) unexpected late-night announcement of changes to the lockdown rules in England (the number of people allowed to meet is decreasing from 30 to six from 14 September, with some exemptions), the health secretary appeared on the show to discuss ongoing issues with the current track and trace system. His excuse? Too many people getting tests.

“There are currently a record number of tests available, our capacity is higher than it ever has been, it’s higher than it was last week. However, we have seen a rise in the number of people who are not eligible for a test coming forward and getting those tests,” Hancock said, explaining that about 25% of the people getting tests were asymptomatic.

“If you don’t have symptoms unless you’ve been asked specifically by a clinician or local authority to go and get a test, you’re not eligible for a test. We want the tests to be available for people with symptoms.”

He continued: “Unfortunately we have seen this quite sharp rise in the last couple of weeks of people without symptoms who don’t have a good reason, coming forward and getting a test.”

Instead of admitting that the track and trace system is still not fit for purpose – a director of the testing programme apologised yesterday and admitted the problems with the system were not because of a lack of capacity but because of a “pinch point” in labs processing the results – Hancock has yet again chosen to place the blame on the British public. And I’m really, really tired of it.

Alongside the fact that the number of people seeking tests was never actually a problem as I flagged above, blaming the public for getting tests – after Boris Johnson warned that not enough people were booking tests back in June – is ludicrous. For months, we’ve been told about the dangers of asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic people spreading the virus, so it makes perfect sense that people without symptoms who suspect they might have the virus are seeking tests (am I the only one who didn’t know you had to have one of the coronavirus key symptoms to be eligible for a test?). One of the biggest problems we had at the beginning of the pandemic was a lack of testing – now when more people than ever are able to access tests and are more informed about the dangers of not knowing they have the virus, are we not encouraging this kind of behaviour?

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For months now, the government has been gaslighting the public into believing their dire handling of the pandemic is our fault. Despite endless mixed messaging, countless U-turns and some disastrous errors like the care home scandal, the government has continually shifted the blame for their incompetence onto the shoulders of people trying to do their best to get by during a global pandemic.

A term typically applied to relationships, gaslighting refers to a form of emotional abuse in which someone is led to doubt their perception of the world and question what they know to be true. It originated from the 1938 play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton, which tells the story of a man called Jack who convinces his wife Bella that she’s going insane by turning the gaslights in their home up and down but claiming not to notice, causing her to doubt the reality she sees with her own eyes.

Gaslighting has now been officially defined as a form of domestic abuse – but that doesn’t mean it’s not something which can happen in politics, too. Because while Matt Hancock’s recent gaslighting tactics are particularly shocking, they’re not the first time in this pandemic the government has acted this way.

A woman eating out to help out during coronavirus pandemic
For months, the government have reassured us that it's safe to get out and about again – so we have.

Just yesterday, Matt Hancock blamed young people for a spike in coronavirus cases, and warned that they needed to “follow the rules” if they wanted to avoid a second wave and not kill their grandparents (that really happened). But let’s not forget that, for the last few months, the government has literally been encouraging us to go out – to eat at our favourite restaurants, go to the pub with our friends and ‘get back to normal’ by using public transport and returning to the office.

By suddenly changing their tune and blaming young people for the spike in cases – which was only to be expected after they told us all to head back out – they’re making out like we’ve all been acting way out of line for months, which is distinctly not true.

But if that’s not enough evidence of the government’s gaslighting, let’s go back a little further, shall we? How about when Dominic Cummings drove halfway across the country during a time when we were explicitly told not to leave our homes and visit our loved ones, but he insisted he was doing nothing wrong and was just “caring for” his family and trying to stop the spread of coronavirus? Or when Boris Johnson completely denied that the government had issued advice which said infection in care homes was “very unlikely,” at the same time that thousands of lives had already been lost as a result? Or when Matt Hancock refuted claims that herd immunity was ever “part of the plan,” despite the chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance telling BBC Radio 4 on 13 March that the government’s aim was “to build up some kind of herd immunity”?

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At this point, it’s undeniable that – whether knowingly or not – the government has repeatedly gaslit the British public into either a) doubting that our fears or concerns about the virus and the way it is being handled are real or b) believing that the devastating impact this pandemic has had across the country is our fault.

At such an unprecedented time, the government’s messaging hasn’t succeeded in alleviating any of our anxiety – in fact, it’s contributed to it. We are not – and should never be made to feel – responsible for the government’s mishandling of this crisis. Enough’s enough.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.