Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 18, May 16, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

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Herd Immunity and Social Experimentation

Before coming under pressure and moving towards lockdown, it is well known that the government was following a policy of "herd immunity" in response to the coronavirus pandemic. That disastrous approach was revealed when its top advisor, Dr David Halpern, stated earlier in March that: "There's going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows as it will do, where you want to cocoon, to protect those at-risk groups so they don't catch the disease. By the time they come out of their cocooning, herd immunity has been achieved in the rest of the population." [1]

Dr Halpern, a psychologist, is chief executive of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), commonly called the "Nudge Unit", so called because of its method of intervening in the behaviour of the population. He is also a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), and as such is a key figure in guiding the policy on dealing with the pandemic. He was also an adviser in Tony Blair's strategy unit [2].

BIT is a social purpose organisation set up by the Cameron Clegg coalition government in 2010 and which was privatised in 2014. It was created to apply a form of behavioural science called "nudge" theory to government policy. This guiding idea is a theory of social experimentation, which promises governance via subtle influences over a population's behaviour rather than legislation. Its creator, Richard Thaler, received the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2017 for incorporating "psychologically realistic assumptions into analyses of economic decision-making. By exploring the consequences of limited rationality, social preferences, and lack of self-control, he has shown how these human traits systematically affect individual decisions as well as market outcomes." [3]

Written evidence to the Lords Science and Technology Committee in 2010 stated:

"It has been reported that the Government has set up a 'nudge unit' in the Cabinet Office to decide how 'choice architecture' can be used to 'nudge' our behaviour in beneficial directions and has recruited Richard Thaler, the academic responsible for the eponymous book Nudge as an advisor. Thaler believes that 'it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people's behaviour in order to make their lives longer, healthier and better.'

"Thaler is a supporter of what he calls 'Libertarian paternalism'. He goes on to say that 'in our understanding a policy is "paternalistic" if it tries to influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off, as judged by themselves.' [His emphasis]. And finally that 'Libertarian paternalism is a relatively weak, soft and nonintrusive type of paternalism because choices are not blocked, fenced off, or significantly burdened. If people want to smoke cigarettes, to eat a lot of candy, to choose an unsuitable health care plan, or to fail to save for retirement, libertarian paternalists will not force them to do otherwise - or even make things difficult for them.'" [4]

In 2015, it came to light in a speech by then Minister for Cabinet Office Matt Hancock, the present Health Secretary, that BIT was collaborating with the Department of Health and Department for Work and Pensions in social experimentation to "nudge" the long-term sick, the disabled, and others back into work [5].

"The team are currently working with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health to trial ideas aimed at preventing people from falling out of the jobs market and going onto Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)," he said. "These include GPs prescribing a work coach, and a health and work passport to collate employment and health information. These emerged from research with people on ESA, and are now being tested with local teams of Jobcentres, GPs and employers."


[1] Mark Easton, "Coronavirus: Care home residents could be 'cocooned'", BBC News, March 11, 2020

[2] Patrick Wintour, "David Cameron's 'nudge unit' aims to improve economic behaviour", The Guardian, September 9, 2010

[3] "The Prize in Economic Sciences 2017", press release of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, October 9, 2017.

[4] Memorandum by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) (BC 82), October 8, 2010, in Written Evidence on Behaviour Change for the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee,

[5] For example, see Sue Jones, "Revealed: Social Experiments To 'Nudge' Sick And Disabled Into Work", Welfare Weekly, November 6, 2015 (updated January 30, 2018)

The speech referred to is that given by Matt Hancock at the Future of Public Services conference 2015. The full text is available at:


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