The making and mainstreaming of the skeptic movement

By Karam Bales

Sending unvaxed children into poorly ventilated rooms while ignoring the warnings of paediatricians in North America, while “experts” exposed as conspiracy theorists continue being platformed by the media.

 We laughed at 5G towers getting attacked in the US and said it couldn’t happen in the UK and then it did. We looked on in horror at the Capitol Hill Insurrection, and said it couldn’t happen in the UK. Then in the week the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation made its decision on child vaccination, anti-vaxxers attempted to storm the medical regulators’ building, a school was vandalised, a Daily Mail reporter infiltrated a group called Veterans for Freedom and discovered discussions on bombing vaccine centres, videos circulated of a protestor saying he would come and kill any nurse who tried to vaccinate his child, Anna de Buisseret of Lawyers for Liberty was filmed reading their legal letter against child vaccination outside a building before screaming “You’re  murdering children.” The video which has now been taken down had many positive comments.

The skeptic movement which has grown out of Covid appears to be disproportionately represented in the media when compared to public opinion polls. It has spent a year and a half platforming those willing to dog whistle to conspiracy theorists, from false positives to dying with or from Covid  and now in regards to child vaccinations. 

With mass gatherings back and millions of students returning, we are heading towards crunch time for the main two camps of thought on the future path of the pandemic. Will we reach a form of endemic equilibrium before the NHS collapses?

The development of the skeptic movement

From January to March 2020, disinformation seemed predominantly to be Qanon in style, consisting of  denial or conspiracy, and Michael Yeadon was punting the  false positives narrative which did have more mainstream cut through, creating doubt and mistrust.

At the start of March 2020 the UK strategy was herd immunity until a rapid U-turn resulted in us officially going into lockdown on 23rd March.

On 24th March the media focused on a new report from Oxford University claiming we were about to reach herd immunity and the virus would burn itself out within a few months without restrictions. The timing seemed incredibly convenient for creating a counter narrative against the need for lockdowns. The Oxford report continued to be cited as evidence that there would be no second wave even though the Alpha wave was already underway. Within days of release, the report had become the bedrock of the skeptic movement which many in the media continued quoting even though by 7pm on the same day it was released Oxford distanced itself from the report’s findings.

The report hadn’t been published by Oxford, but was released via Dropbox by a PR company with links to the government’s semi-privatised Nudge unit. It hadn’t been peer-reviewed and requests to see the evidence used were refused.

Dominic Cummings describes Johnson as a trolley. I believe those who advocated a herd immunity strategy, despite knowing the consequences, were alarmed when Johnson changed course, so they set out to quickly undermine lockdowns, creating doubt in the public’s mind and creating arguments for the contrarians to push. Slapping the Oxford University label onto the report automatically conferred a sense of integrity and quality which the media trusted without question. However, why did they continue to push the report after it received widespread condemnation from large sections of the scientific community?

The Oxford label came from the authors, including Sunetra Gupta who would go on to sign the Great Barrington Declaration, which opposed the lockdown strategy to tackle Covid. The report was released by Sugrue Communications, run by Calibre Sugrue, the company which had worked with Animal Dynamics, the company of former investment banker Alex Caccia. Both had worked on contracts for the Ministry of Defence. Cassia was one of the people responsible for the Great Barrington Declaration, he is also one of the founders of Gupta’s newest organisation Collateral Global.

 So the day after herd immunity was rejected, a mislabelled Oxford report was splashed across the papers supporting the continuation of the herd immunity strategy while providing Gupta the platform to become a leading voice of the skeptic movement.

The lack of rigor shown by the press regarding the report was shocking, but the same happened again the next day.

On 25th March, headlines told us a 6% drop in GDP would kill more people than Covid.  Although serious issues were raised with how this conclusion was reached, the report is still quoted in the media as evidence that lockdowns don’t work.

A week later Phillip Thomas, the report’s writer and owner of a risk management company, was invited into the Treasury to model the roadmap to unlocking. This was an economic exercise which focused on GDP and dates not data.  

The same week that Thomas was in the treasury, Russell Viner published his report on Covid in children and schools. The study was an important early source for the idea that children were less infectious and schools weren’t a significant transmission issue. It was a systematic study conducted by examining previously published papers. Many were not on Covid but other infectious diseases. Some were non-peer reviewed preprints and others were based on areas in Asia that had rapidly introduced measures, meaning data was sparse. This report is still included in official government documents like the Green Book.

Herd Immunity on the horizon; Lockdowns kill more than Covid; Transmission not significant in children or schools – in just over a week after lockdown began, three of the key planks of the skeptic movement had been laid and elements of the media were lapping it up.

Also at the start of April, Toby Young started Lockdown Skeptics as a hub for evidence contradicting the “official line” with dog whistles to the conspiracy theorists. The science was questionable but the culture warriors who complain they are being silenced find it remarkably easy to get onto mainstream platforms to sell their controversial views.

After this we had anti-lockdown legal cases by Lawyers for Liberty and Law or Fiction. In May Us for Them were founded, instantly being platformed on mainstream media, as they campaigned for the removal of infection control measures.  Soon a whole ecosystem of campaign groups had developed with the same names constantly appearing across many groups. They now even have their own parliamentary group, the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of skeptic Conservative MPs. While claiming public money to operate, they have also received donations from a risk management company run by Luke Johnson.

There are many similarities to the hydra of libertarian think tanks resident in Tufton Street, and the range of organisations centred around Clare Fox, Frank Furedi, Toby Young and the rest of those from Living Marxism that was reborn as Spiked Online. It’s no surprise that the same people are involved in the skeptic movement and they are happy to share a platform with anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists.

The skeptic group PANDATA held an event near the end of 2020 where Toby Young and editor of Spiked Online Frank Furedi shared a platform with several members of HART, an organisation whose claims to be independent scientists are questionable after their private chat showing members to be anti-vax conspiracy theorists were leaked to myself and several other campaigners and journalists. The group is in contact with the far right America’s Frontline Doctors whose founder Simone Gold was arrested for her involvement in the Capitol Hill protests. They are involved in setting up an ivermectin sellers club and are advertising an ivermectin alternative treatment plan for parents to use on children rather than vaccination, via their Safer to Wait campaign. Will Jones who was also at the event is allegedly a member of Lockdown Skeptics and HART. Luke Johnson who donated to the CRG also spoke at the event as did Karol Sikora of the Great Barrington Declaration and Francis Hoar who has brought several high profile anti-lockdown cases to court.  The same characters are also involved in the Together campaign which Clare Fox is also involved in.

There has been a lot of talk recently of social media and disinformation. However, we shouldn’t forget it’s the mainstream platforming of members of these groups that emboldens the mobs we see trying to storm buildings, such as the medical regulators on the day the JCVI was deciding on child vaccination. You don’t dog whistle unless you want the hounds to come. 

Karam Bales is a former member of the National Education Union Executive, writing in a personal capacity.

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts