Apologies for not filing an update yesterday. Been incredibly busy with Free Speech Union business for the last couple of days. As regular readers will know, we wrote to Ofcom at the beginning of June informing the broadcast watchdog that if it didn’t withdraw its coronavirus guidance, which cautions its licensees against broadcasting “statements that seek to question or undermine the advice of public health bodies on the Coronavirus, or otherwise undermine people’s trust in the advice of mainstream sources of information about the disease”, we would apply to the High Court to have that guidance struck down. It would be an exaggeration to say it has played a major role in suppressing public debate about the pandemic and the Government’s management of it. But it has undoubtedly been a factor. Anyway, Ofcom has dug its heels in so we’re pressing ahead.
We had to file all the papers by close of play today and, inevitably, it was a last-minute rush. Apart from me, the team consists of two members of the FSU’s Legal Advisory Council – Dan Tench and Paul Diamond, both working pro bono – and Peter Ainsworth, the FSU’s Case Management Director. We had to challenge the guidance within three months of it being published and since it was published on March 23rd, the same day the Government imposed a full lockdown, we had to file today.
That means we’ve been working flat out over the past 48 hours to pull together all the documents, including a 5,000-word witness statement from Dr John Lee, the retired pathologist who’s written a string of brilliant pieces about the virus for the Spectator. Here is a key section from John’s statement:
A key error that I would like to highlight is the characterisation of COVID-19 by the Government and also by the broadcast media.
As has been well publicised, COVID-19 is a disease caused by a novel coronavirus usually causing a respiratory infection. In some cases it can be directly fatal, or at least a strongly contributory cause of death. Many of the fundamental parameters of the disease were unknown when the outbreak first came significantly to public attention in February and March of this year, and are still the subject of much uncertainty. For example, its reproduction rate in various settings (that is the number of people who will catch the disease from one person who already has it), the mortality rate, the percentage of the population who may be susceptible to catching it, and how the passage of the disease may vary with climate and seasonal changes.
There are of course a large number of serious human infectious diseases many of which we have largely conquered through vaccination or other public health initiatives. But globally many diseases remain. In addition to the burden of chronic disease, recent figures estimate 1.5 million annual deaths from tuberculosis, 1.4 million from diarrhoeal diseases, 1 million deaths from AIDS, 400,000 from malaria. Lower respiratory tract diseases are estimated to cause 3 million deaths annually, of which the various forms of influenza may kill 28,000 or more people in the United Kingdom in a bad year. The question is where does COVID-19 rank in the panoply of other serious diseases?
The answer from Government and the media was that COVID-19 is a uniquely serious disease presenting a grave threat to human beings and to our society. In January, February and March 2020, the broadcast media repeatedly showed graphic images from, for example, China, Italy and New York, illustrating hospitals apparently overrun with COVID-19 patients. This inspired a Government response unprecedented in peacetime.
I believe that this characterisation of COVID-19 is highly questionable. It is certainly a contagious disease, though not obviously significantly more contagious than a typical influenza, and much less contagious than diseases such as measles. It is also true that in a small proportion of cases, particularly in elderly people with co-morbidities, it can be an extremely serious disease, and in a small fraction of those cases, it can lead to death. But the initial framing of this disease was seriously flawed. The infection fatality rate (the proportion of those who catch the disease and die) came down from an initial wild estimate from the World Health Organisation of 3.4% (which would indeed have been an emergency and crisis) to 0.9% by Imperial College London, to 0.67% also by ICL, to 0.2% by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and will probably finally be around 0.1% (very similar to influenza).
But even this fails to characterise the epidemic properly. Those under the age of 18 have a vanishingly low chance of being seriously ill with this disease or dying of it, those under 60 a very low chance, and even older patients into their eighties who are otherwise fit and well, a low chance of this disease significantly affecting their overall level of health or their lifespan.
I would not want to be misinterpreted. Because this is a new disease and therefore could potentially affect a large number of people, I believe that it was reasonable to believe at the inception of COVID-19 in the United Kingdom that it constituted a potentially important and serious public health challenge for the Government and other institutions such as the National Health Service.
However, I do not consider, from early on in the epidemic, that it could continue reasonably or rationally to be characterised as a threat out of all proportion to other commonly experienced public health challenges, including the annual contagion of influenza. (In Germany, for example, mortality in the seasonal influenza epidemic of 2017/18 was about 21,500, while to date Covid-19 mortality is less than 9,000.) The alarm raised by the potential for a dangerous epidemic was rapidly replaced by increasing information showing, to informed and unbiased assessment, that the highly probable outcome of the epidemic was well within the envelope experienced in many years of the last quarter-century. At the same time, clear harms from the un-assessed policy of lockdown became apparent very soon after its inception.
This alternative interpretation was suppressed to the extent that the narrative concerning the disease presented on the broadcast media still maintains unchallenged belief in the disproportionate severity of the Covid-19 epidemic, long after this has been untenable in the face of accumulating evidence.
If one studies datasets published by the Office for National Statistics, and calculates all cause mortality for winter/spring for the last 27 years corrected for population for each year, 2019/2020 ranks not first, second or third, but eighth. It is also clear that for several of the last six years there has been lower than usual mortality, meaning that, in the unavoidable cycles of nature, a year of excess mortality should have been expected.
It also turns out that a key early assumption is incorrect, namely that the entire population is vulnerable to the disease. A large proportion of the population (40–60%) show immunological evidence of immune responses to this virus without ever having been exposed to it. This is because as many as one in six respiratory infections in a normal winter are caused by other coronaviruses, and, perhaps not entirely surprisingly, these stimulate immune responses that cross-react with the new virus. Yet even now, the broadcast media continue to repeat the initial incorrect assumption, many weeks after something that seemed highly likely from the outset, namely that many of us have some immunity to the disease, has new clear data to support it.
It seems to me that the conceptualisation and contextualisation of the disease, designed to support the official narrative established in the earliest stages of the epidemic, has not been seriously scrutinised or challenged by the broadcast media to date. Particularly in the key months of February, March and April, I believe that this lack of challenge has been a major factor in the formulation of responses which have been inappropriate and caused major collateral damage.
In my statement, I focus less on the way the Government has exaggerated the contagiousness and deadliness of the disease and more on the wrong-headedness of Ofcom seeking to suppress dissent when there is so little scientific consensus about the disease and how best to minimise the harm it causes.
The right to free speech is one of our most precious liberties – perhaps the most precious of all – and the fact that we’re in the midst of a public health crisis is a reason to protect it, not curtail it. All of us, whether scientists, politicians or ordinary citizens, are doing our best to understand the threat posed by COVID-19 and how best to minimise the harm it causes, both directly and indirectly. There are, at present, no settled views about any of these issues, and there is certainly no consensus among scientists that can be described as “the science”.
That is obvious from the number of times public authorities, including the Government, have changed their mind about how best to minimise the damage wrought by the virus. To give just a few examples:
a. on January 14th the WHO tweeted that there was “no clear evidence of human to human transmission of the novel #coronavirus”; on March 12th it declared that the Covid-19 outbreak was a “global pandemic”;
b. the WHO and the UK Government initially advised that the wearing of face masks did not play a major role in protecting people from infection outside healthcare settings; on June 5th the WHO issued new guidance, recommending the wearing of face masks in community settings and the Government made the wearing of face masks mandatory on public transport on June 15th;
c. on January 29th the WHO’s Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, praised China’s policy of locking down the population of Wuhan, as well as those in surrounding areas, saying it “helped prevent the spread of coronavirus”; on April 29th, the WHO’s top emergencies expert, Dr Mike Ryan, praised the response to the pandemic of Sweden, which did not lock down its population, as a “model” for the rest of the world;
d. on April 2nd the WHO issued a Situation Report in which it warned that people infected with COVID-19 who are asymptomatic could infect others; on June 6th the WHO’s technical lead on the pandemic, Maria Van Kerkhove, said at a press conference that examples of asymptomatic people infecting others were “very rare”;
e. on March 5th Boris Johnson appeared on This Morning and told the presenters that stopping public gatherings in order to reduce the spread of the virus would be “quite draconian”, and that one theory being discussed, and which he appeared to endorse, was that the British population could “take it on the chin”, “take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures”; on March 23rd Boris announced that to prevent the NHS becoming overwhelmed (due in part to insufficient numbers of ventilators), the British public “must stay at home” and the Government was ordering all non-essential shops to close, as well as libraries, playgrounds, outdoor gyms and places of worship, and it was prohibiting gatherings of more than two people in public and stopping all social events, including weddings and baptisms;
f. on May 24th Boris Johnson announced that primary schools would reopen on June 1st, with secondaries reopening on 15 June, and expressed the hope that all primary school children would enjoy at least four weeks of school before the summer holidays; on June 8th Health Secretary Matt Hancock conceded at the daily Downing Street press briefing that all schools would not reopen until September “at the earliest”.
Reviewing the constantly changing policies of public authorities, particularly the UK Government, it is hard to disagree with the words of Lord Sumption in an article published in the Mail on Sunday on June 21st 2020: “Does the Government have a policy for coronavirus? Indeed it does. In fact, it has several. One for each month of the year, all mutually inconsistent and none of them properly thought through. Sometimes, Governments have to change tack. It shows that they are attending closely to a changing situation. But this crisis has exposed something different and more disturbing: a dysfunctional Government with a deep-seated incoherence at the heart of its decision-making processes.”
In light of this, it was wrong of Ofcom to issue guidance advising its licensees not to broadcast material likely to undermine people’s trust in the advice of public authorities on the grounds that doing so is potentially harmful. In fact, based on the current advice of the UK Government, ignoring huge swathes of its initial advice — “take it on the chin” — would have been sensible and prevented more harm than it caused. It now seems plain that the Government’s response to the crisis from month to month has indeed been deeply incoherent, with its advice and the advice of state agencies often changing radically from one week to the next. In such circumstances, the best way to protect the public from harm is to allow scientists, experts, journalists and others to vigorously challenge the Government and public authorities, without the threat of broadcasters being sanctioned by the state regulator if those views happen not to accord with the constantly-changing position of the Government or other public bodies.
Do John and I have evidence that broadcasters deliberately chose not to feature sceptical voices on the airwaves as a result of Ofcom’s coronavirus guidance? No direct evidence, no, but we share the impression of many people in the sceptical camp that the coverage of the crisis by national broadcasters has been heavily slanted in favour of the official narrative.
John cites the fact that he’s been asked to appear on American radio stations more often than on British ones:
I was informed by Fraser Nelson, the editor of the Spectator, that my initial article was accessed online over a million times in the first couple of weeks. However, there was no response to it from broadcast media in the UK. While I was invited several times on to radio shows and television in the USA, including nationally syndicated programmes, there was no contact from the BBC, which in normal times would be extremely surprising given the importance of the topic and the profile of the article.
I, too, flag up that I’ve had far fewer invitations to appear on broadcast media than in normal times, and cite the popularity of Lockdown Sceptics as evidence that the public has an appetite for hearing sceptical views that the mainstream media hasn’t been feeding:
At the beginning of April, I set up a website called Lockdown Sceptics in which I publish original material by scientists and public health experts, as well as links to articles by scientists, experts and journalists who are critical of what Eamonn Holmes called the “state narrative”, and daily updates in which I comment on the news. As of June 22nd 2020, the site has had 1,652,739 page views. On just one day May 7th – it attracted 148,188 page views. The site attracts a lot of comments from users – more than 1,000 a day at its peak – and one of the most common complaints below the line is that the coverage of the crisis on broadcast media is hopelessly one-sided, uncritically echoing the views and advice of the authorities.
During normal times I am regularly invited to appear as a commentator or newspaper reviewer on news and current affairs programmes, including the BBC News Channel, ITV News, Channel 4 News, Sky News, the Today programme, Newsnight, Daily Politics and the Andrew Marr Show. But since I started expressing scepticism about the virulence and severity of COVID-19, as well as being critical of the lockdown policy, I have not been invited to appear on any of these programmes to discuss the coronavirus crisis, save for Newsnight which booked me, then cancelled when I told the producer my views. And while it’s hard to generalise from my own experience, other commentators with similar views about the virus have told me the same thing.
For instance, the hostility of broadcasters towards dissenting voices has been noticed by Karol Sikora, Professor of Medicine at the University of Buckingham and a former WHO advisor on cancer. He has written several articles in newspapers drawing attention to the collateral damage likely to be caused by the lockdown – such as the number of people who will die because cancer operations and cancer screening programmes have been suspended – and yet his voice has been largely unheard on the broadcast media. He told me: “I have been asked on to the Today programme, the World at One and Newsnight. But after I’ve accepted, I get dropped a few hours later probably as they’ve been told I might express the wrong views.”
That the coverage of the crisis has been completely one-sided, with very few genuinely critical voices being heard, is also the view of Robin Aitken MBE, a journalist who worked as a reporter for the BBC for 25 years, ending up on the Today programme. He told me: “The BBC very quickly bought in to the Government’s lockdown plans and thereafter very little real debate was allowed. Jonathan Sumption popped up a couple of times but, in the main, anti-lockdown voices, which had a perfectly respectable case to make, were simply not heard.”
We’re unlikely to come before a judge this side of September, unfortunately, so there isn’t much we can do to salvage the current situation. But if we’re successful, at least Ofcom will think twice before issuing equally censorious guidance next time there’s a public health emergency.
Even though our solicitor and barrister are working pro bono, there will inevitably be costs associated with this action – indeed, there have been some already. The FSU has set up a Fighting Fund to help pay for this and other attempts to stand up for free speech in the courts. If you feel like contributing, please click here. And if you’d like to join the FSU, please click here.
And on to the round-up of all the stories I’ve noticed, or which have been been brought to my attention, in the last 24 hours:
- ‘What the new UK lockdown rules mean for you‘ – Telegraph summarises tonight’s easing of restrictions by the Prime Minister
- ‘Art galleries, museums and cinemas will reopen‘ – The Times reports on the grand reopening + staycations allowed from July 4th. Whoopee!
- ‘It’s lockdown lift-off – but who wants to live in this new normal?‘ – Allison Pearson is underwhelmed by today’s announcements
- ‘The NHS pushing DNRs on the “mildly frail”‘ – Scandalous story in Off-Guardian via Dr Vernon Coleman. What Dr Coleman’s YouTube video about this here
- ‘Questions for lockdown apologists‘ – Good post on Medium by John Pospichal that I missed last month. He shows that Covid deaths increased precipitously after lockdowns in Britain, Italy, Spain, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, New York City and Ecuador
- ‘Police in Netherlands use water cannon against anti-lockdown protestors‘ – Didn’t see these being used against the BLM protestors
- ‘I dared to question the aims of Black Lives Matter – and got the worst racist abuse I’ve ever suffered‘ – Esther Krakue is a black Briton who doesn’t support the BLM agenda. When she voiced that opinion on Twitter, she was subject to vile racist abuse, much of it from white liberals
- ‘We Can’t Breathe‘ – Website created by the organisers of an anti-lockdown rally in Texas
- ‘There are 185 billion reasons why no politician should consider a lockdown again‘ – Russell Lynch, the Economics Editor of the Telegraph, reports on a paper by the former Bank of England rate-setter David Miles estimating that the cost of the lockdown is far greater than the cost of the years of life we have saved from imposing it, even if we accept Neil Ferguson’s apocalyptic modelling. Exactly the same argument I made back in March. More on this tomorrow
- ‘Scottish schools to fully reopen on August 11 in “mother and father” of SNP climbdowns‘ – If they can do this in Scotland, why not England and Wales?
- ‘COVID-19 deaths fall across every age group, new figures reveal‘ – Unlike the rest of us, the virus seems to have gone on holiday – and it’s not a staycation. Will it be permanent?
- ‘Allow gyms and leisure centres to reopen‘ – Petition on the UK Government website. It’s already got over 70,000 signatures
- ‘Has anyone found a mask that can handle hot flushes, especially while wearing glasses?‘ – Useful Reddit thread for women of a certain age
- ‘Premier League: Mystery over “professional” haircuts‘ – The plait thickens
Only one suggestion today: “Gaslighter” by the Dixie Chicks. After all, we’ve all been gaslighted by the authorities.
A few weeks ago, Lockdown Sceptics launched a searchable directory of open businesses across the UK. The idea is to celebrate those retail and hospitality businesses that have reopened, as well as help people find out what has opened in their area. But we need your help to build it, so we’ve created a form you can fill out to tell us about those businesses that have opened near you. Now that non-essential shops have reopened – or most of them, anyway – we’re now focusing on pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants, as well as other social venues. Please visit the page and let us know about those brave folk who are doing their bit to get our country back on its feet. Don’t worry if your entries don’t show up immediately – we need to approve them once you’ve entered the data.
I enjoy reading all your comments and I’m glad I’ve created a “safe space” for lockdown sceptics to share their frustrations and keep each other’s spirits up. But please don’t copy and paste whole articles from papers that are behind paywalls in the comments. I work for some of those publications and if they don’t charge for premium content they won’t survive.
Thanks as always to those of you who made a donation in the last 24 hours to pay for the upkeep of this site. It usually takes me several hours to do these daily updates, along with everything else, which doesn’t leave much time for other work. If you feel like donating, however small the amount, please click here. And if you want to flag up any stories or links I should include in future updates, email me here. Please don’t email me at any other address.