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Who is David Halpern? Meet the man steering the government’s response to coronavirus

It has been reported that the government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), led by David Halpern, will be managing the UK’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

A behavioural psychologist, Halpern researched and lectured on social human sciences before sidestepping into government in 2001 – as a chief analyst in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit and later the director of the now-privatised BIT, founded in 2010.

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BIT is governed by “nudge” theory – a Nobel Prize winning idea dreamed up by economist Richard Thaler that states governments can tweak people’s behaviour in subtle ways to avoid legislating and ordering.

In the past, BIT has encouraged people to join the organ donor register by showing adverts when people renew their car tax online, as well as encouraging bankers to give a day’s salary to charity.

In the case of coronavirus, this theory will be used to implore people to wash their hands to prevent the spread of the virus – while other governments employ more dramatic actions such as closing borders and encouraging quarantine.

But while it has been lauded by some, nudge theory has not survived without criticism.

It has been pointed out that the efficacy of the theory depends on “nudgers” getting it right.

Others have criticised it for being paternalistic, while some have observed that certain outcomes need a bigger push to be achieved. Dealing with a global pandemic, perhaps…

As wells as critics of the theory, BIT itself has come under fire for various controversies.

In 2015, Walthamstow borough worked with BIT to circulate a questionnaire to primary school children – aimed at detecting the first signs of radicalisation. The questionnaire was described as “Islamophobic” and the names of children who were deemed “at risk” were leaked.

BIT has also been criticised for its income. Private Eye criticised the unit for charging the government for work it used to do itself, and Halpern’s high salary (he earned over £200,000 in his first 14 months at BIT) has also come under the spotlight.

Indeed, the government service is pretty profitable. It has sold its services to the New South Wales government in Australia and to a housing association developing homes in Norfolk hoping to reduce crime and unemployment.

BIT also earned £800,000 selling services to Australia and Singapore, and signed a £5m contract with US charity Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Now charged with co-ordinating the government’s official coronavirus response, we can only hope BIT proves itself to be worthy of its huge income.


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