Attacks on NHS sites by extremists are tacitly encouraged by mainstream media pundits and politicians, argues Karam Bales
Anti-vaxxers attacking a site in Milton Keynes has recently made headlines, and while many in the media have displayed shock at the footage, it comes as no surprise to those who have studied the development of the coordinated Covid disinformation group that has developed over the course of the pandemic.
In previous pieces I warned about the increasing threat of anti-vax groups, particularly in regards to school protests. Staff and students have faced frequent abuse and at least two schools have been evacuated due to bomb threats.
The growth of the anti-vax movement is more than just a creation of the online world. Its narratives and misused statistics are repeated in the mainstream media and by politicians, particularly around the subject of Covid passes. It’s important to understand that not everyone who opposes Covid passes is anti-vax: however, all anti-vaxxers oppose passes. The tribalisation of Covid policy has seen many defenders of ‘freedom’ wittingly or unwittingly allying themselves to anti-vax groups, deniers and the herd immunity sellers producing disinformation.
The most common claim is that vaccines don’t prevent infection or transmission. This is a typical misrepresentation: vaccines aren’t a hundred percent effective but they do reduce the risk of infection and often reduce the period of time a person is infectious.
Desmond Swayne MP claimed more people are killed in road accidents than Covid. Andrew Bridgen MP claimed natural immunity was twenty times more effective than vaccination. Allison Pearson of the Telegraph has suggested the government would manipulate hospital admissions to make it look as if hospitals are overwhelmed by Omicron. Regularly encouraging conspiracy theorists, she has also undermined the booster programme, quoting one of the Great Barrington Declaration’s authors Sunetra Gupta that booster would provide no additional protection against Omicron.
Sunetra Gupta’s claims that no one under 40 required vaccination was also quoted by Conservative MPs in a Westminster Hall debate where they called for a halt to vaccinations for 12-15 year olds. Graham Brady MP found himself in hot water after sharing a document on vaccine harms as did William Wragg MP for his Vaccine Damages Bill. Both used information produced by Joel Smalley from disinformation group HART and the now defunct Pandata, information which was proven to be inaccurate and misleading by Full Fact.
These are just a few of many examples of how disinformation has found its way into mainstream debate in the media, and this ‘alternative facts’ approach to the pandemic emboldens the anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists and reinforces their misplaced belief that they are the silent majority.
The attack on the Milton Keynes site involved individuals linked to GB Resistance. Operating an online channel, they perpetuate the idea that vaccines cause more harm than Covid and that the pandemic is a fabricated excuse for social control. Worryingly Graham Brady MP, Chair of the influential 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, was reported in The Times as having had a meeting with various organisers within the anti-vax movement including those linked to GB Resistance and Dolores Cahill, who is implicated in encouraging the removal of an Irish politician from hospital, against the advice of his doctors. He died shortly afterwards.
Where disinformation and misuse of statistics have most successfully found their way into the mainstream is in regards to schools and children.
The Telegraph and Daily Express have dedicated many columns since September to a non-peer reviewed preprint study that exaggerated the harms of vaccines on children that has since been withdrawn due to its use of unverified self-reporting of adverse reactions. The report’s authors include Tracey Hoeg who is linked to authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, and Josh Stevenson who is a member of the US anti-vax group Rational Ground. Despite Covid-induced myocarditis being considerably more common and severe than the very low numbers of mild myocarditis, child vaccination has now become a controversial subject as far as many in the media and politics are concerned.
This can be seen by the lack of attention given to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s decision to not approve offering the choice of vaccination to all 5-11 year olds. The JCVI’s release statement said they were waiting to see more data on infection-acquired immunity and myocarditis. This is in stark contrast to the Centre for Disease Control in the US which has released data after vaccinating millions of 5-11 year olds that shows the considerable benefits of vaccination.
The decision requires urgent attention. Will the Chief Medical Officers be meeting to decide if they will give approval like they did for 12-15 vaccination, and if they are, then when?
The ramifications could come quickly. While there has been much talk of Omicron being milder, little attention has been given to the rapidly rising number of children being hospitalised which are now at record levels in the UK and other countries.
Several weeks ago South African authorities told the world to prepare for paediatric surges. Pfizer’s initial analysis of Omicron suggested a 20% increase in the risk of hospitalisation in children, and in the US cities like New York and Chicago have issued health warnings and urged parents to get all children aged 5 and above vaccinated.
The UK has become an international outlier when it comes to vaccinating children, as is our attitudes to masks in classrooms. Besides testing on site the Department for Education’s only other additional measure for schools will be the reintroduction of masks in secondary school, a decision that has been met with open hostility by large sections of the right wing press in a way that hasn’t been on the continent where mask wearing in classrooms has been much more common.
On this subject we again see the mainstreaming of disinformation that there isn’t evidence that masks reduce transmission in schools. This might have been true mid-2020 but it’s no longer the case. The Centre for Disease Control in the US has an extensive list of studies on the efficacy of masks and filtration. The summary finds HEPA air filters reduce transmission by 65% and when combined with masks this goes up to 90%. Governments around the world have produced similar evidence bases and the World Health Organization now also recommends masks in primary schools and SAGE have made the same recommendation to our government.
This week with record cases, facing record child hospitalisations we will be sending primary school students back to unventilated classes of thirty, without masks, and with the majority not even having been offered the choice of vaccination.
Education faces another term of disruption. Children will get sick, there will be hospitalisations and unfortunately some will die. The tragedy is that most of this will have been preventable.
Karam Bales is a former member of the National Education Union Executive, writing in a personal capacity.
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