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21 October 2014

Collective panic over ebola is just one example of the politics of fear gripping our leaders

Our experts are being drowned out by baying, panicked mobs, and in this increasingly voter-pleasing landscape, it’s the loudest who wins.

By Sophie Foster

A government’s job should be to educate and enlighten the people it serves, quelling its electorate’s fears by calling on the best information they have – and hire – for that very task.

However in recent weeks and months, with an ever increasing lurch towards populism and short-term electioneering, we’ve started to see our leaders pandering to – and therefore reinforcing – the public’s fears and hysteria, and in doing so, ignoring those inconvenient truths they are being told by experts.

The most recent example of this has been ebola, which, with cases of the virus reaching beyond West Africa, has understandably gripped the globe in a state of collective panic.

While it is undoubtedly a serious virus, Public Health England, a body nominated to advise the government, announced there were no plans to introduce screening for those arriving in the UK, explaining that this would mean screening “huge numbers of low-risk people”. This was supported by eminent scientists such as Professor David Mabey, who described it as a “pointless exercise with no meaningful impact on the risk of importing ebola into the UK”.

However, within days of the official guidance, and following a slew of panic-inducing headlines, it was announced that screening would be implemented at several border points, with the Labour MP and home affairs select committee chair Keith Vaz saying: “We can’t just accept what is being said by Public Health England. Of course it’s right that we should take medical advice but we need to be satisfied that the public feels enough is being done at our borders.”

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His language highlights the sole motivation, to make the public feel better, because after all, once its efficacy has been debunked by doctors, such measures are just illusion – a sop to an expectant public who want their temperatures taken to allay their fears, regardless of the evidence. Furthermore, while of course it is the government’s responsibility to provide reassurance, as virologist Professor Andrew Easton points out, it “can have the effect of confirming in the population the idea that there is an emergency, which is not the case.” Ultimately, this panic prevention does more harm than good.

That such knee-jerk policies are being formed under pressure from the most vociferous members of the electorate, media and opposition parties rather than in response to reasoned and evidence-based advice is becoming increasingly symptomatic of a wider problem across government, and depressingly, it’s not necessary to go that far back to find the last example.

Earlier this month, the Conservatives announced vague plans to scrap the human rights act, as well as a re-evaluation of our relationship with the ECHR, prompting consternation from legal spheres – not least of all its own former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, the MP who, up until July, was responsible for providing legal advice to the cabinet.

Interpreted as a reactionary measure to quell public concerns around the UK’s relationship with Europe, Grieve warned: “These proposals threaten to create domestic constitutional difficulties and to undermine our international reputation and influence for entirely illusory benefits.” Again, as with criticism of ebola screening, we have experts warning that such changes will have no discernible benefits. Similarly, Ken Clarke, another senior Conservative, also criticised the proposals, saying: “it is unthinkable to leave the European convention on human rights.” These are compelling arguments from the closest thing the government had to legal experts and yet it saw fit to dispense of their services in a reshuffle, instead kowtowing to scaremongering headlines influenced by a Ukip narrative.

If our politicians cannot – or choose not to – defer to those bodies that are in place to advise them, and their informed recommendations are dismissed at the drop of a media-induced maelstrom of fear, then what is the point in their existence and who is really in charge?

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