Tue 31 March 2020

Stefan Simanowitz recounts how counterclaim and backlash over a flawed Government policy wasted precious days in the UK’s fight against the Coronavirus.

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It is hard to believe that, a week ago, very few of us had heard of “herd immunity”.

I became interested in the concept a week earlier than most after hearing Boris Johnson outline the “take it on the chin” theory of how to tackle the Coronavirus on the This Morning sofa. “One of the theories,” he told Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughy, “is perhaps you 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. I think we need to strike a balance.”

Rather than challenge him on this seemingly outlandish theory, the interviewers nodded meekly and moved onto their next important question: “Are you excited about becoming a father again?”

The Balance Fallacy

At the time, I did not for a moment think that this was a serious strategy. Instead, I believed that there were two possible explanations as to why Johnson had said this.

The first explanation was that he was using the “take it on the chin” line as  a clever rhetorical device: a well-rehearsed comeback to the obvious and inevitable question of “why on earth isn’t the Government doing more to combat the spread of the Coronavirus?”

An accomplished member of the debating societies of Eton College and Oxford University, I figured that Johnson would have been familiar with the “balance fallacy”. This logical fallacy, beloved by politicians, involves taking two sides of an argument – one much stronger than the other – and treating them as if they are of equal or comparable value.

At the time of writing, Britain and Belarus remain the only European countries not to have shut down their schools.

According this logic, the Prime Minister was using an absurd theory to counterbalance what he calls “draconian measures” – banning big events, closing schools etc. Had he been trying to persuade the public to accept a curfew, he might have gone the other way and said something like “one theory is that we should round everyone up and lock them in internment camps”. 

Or was this just another example of the supposedly gaff-prone, tousle-haired Boris blurting out something he shouldn’t have at a time of national crisis?

I tweeted the clip with the observation that: “This is a CRAZY theory“. At the time I tweeted it, the clip of Johnson had been viewed 750 times. 36 hours later, it had had 2.5 million views.

The ‘Fake News’ Backlash

I was surprised that, after more than a week, not a single media outlet had reported the fact that Britain’s Prime Minister had said “take it on the chin” in relation to the Coronavirus on national television. What was even more shocking was that it did not receive coverage even after going viral.

But then some people did start taking notice of it. And the backlash started to grow.

Fortunately for me, most of the ire was directed at the people who had tweeted the clip with a claim that the Prime Minister was suggesting or recommending “taking it on the chin”. He had been very careful with his words – merely positing the theory, rather than advocating it. 

Claims started mounting suggesting that the clip had been edited (it hadn’t) or – as the Guido Fawkes site claimed – that it had been taken “out of context”. Though the interview had been clipped, the meaning of his words had not been distorted.

Two days after my tweet, the Sun ran an article written by its executive editor Dan Wooton. “Fake news merchants on the cesspit that is Twitter are distributing a clip of the Prime Minister,” it screamed beneath the headline: Boris has been Misrepresented by an-Out-of Context Clip – and it Must Stop.

Even the reputable fact-checking website, Full Fact, weighed in. Rather than recognise that the Prime Minister had floated a crazy theory, it took aim at the claim that he had “advocated” the theory, and concluded this was incorrect. I believe a large majority of people who had posted the clip had never made this claim. But now it was official: the clip was ‘fake news’ and anyone posting it was ‘a fake news merchant’.

It was sobering to see how swiftly sections of the media had moved to snuff out what was a growing viral story. Many of the people who had posted it quite legitimately – including Miles Thompson, whose clip had received millions of views – deleted it due to the online abuse they were receiving.

So the story was quashed, savaged on social media and ignored by the mainstream media. But then everything changed.

Out in the Open

A week after the original This Morning interview, an “unnamed Government source” gave the political editor of ITV News, Robert Peston, the ‘herd immunity’ story and suddenly everything became clear.

The Government had clearly been planning the herd immunity strategy for weeks. The Prime Minister had been sent out to do the interview with This Morning with the aim of floating the theory to prepare the public for it. Even his words – to allow the virus to “pass through” the population – are identical to those used in Peston’s Government-briefed ‘scoop’.

The fact that the Sun cried “fake news” and leapt to the Prime Minister’s defence after the clip had gone viral, suggests that even the Murdoch press had not been briefed about herd immunity in advance.

Four days after the herd immunity theory was announced, the Government was forced into a humiliating u-turn. It admitted that the science upon which it was based was deeply flawed and, over the past few days, it had been quietly back-tracking. But it cannot backtrack on the many weeks that have been lost or on the many thousands of additional lives that have likely been put at risk.

What has been clear from the experiences of China, South Korea and Italy, is that time is of the absolute essence when combating the Coronavirus. The weeks during which the Government was secretly developing and rolling out its herd immunity strategy cannot be reclaimed.

What is also becoming increasingly clear is that the Government focused its energies on the herd immunity strategy without properly preparing a Plan B. As a result, its messaging is confused, decisions contradictory and basic provisions – such as tests and protective equipment for NHS staff – have not been provided. At the time of writing, Britain and Belarus remain the only European countries not to have shut down their schools.

Last week, the Daily Telegraph ran the headline: Those Who Question the Government’s Coronavirus Strategy Are Not Only Wrong, They Are a Danger to the Rest of Us. The past fortnight has shown that it is not those challenging Government strategy which present a danger, but those who fail to ask the right questions who put us all at risk.

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