Today
Sun 18 April 2021

Quiet hospitals? False PCR tests? Nafeez Ahmed reports on how the British commentator Toby Young is using COVID-19 disinformation to radicalise conservatives

COVID-19 disinformation has become the new frontline for far-right entryism. As the UK Government has stumbled from crisis to crisis, its mishandling of the pandemic response has stoked fear, anxiety and anger that has provided ample fuel for dangerous conspiracy theories to be widely disseminated – not by fringe voices, but by influencers with significant ties to the US and UK governments.

To be sure, as I have previously reported, draconian lockdowns have always been avoidable; catastrophic Government failures worsened both the first and second waves; and the best solutions to transition out of the crisis to near normal are being overlooked. Yet such failures, along with the devastating impact of both the pandemic and the lockdowns on ordinary citizens (especially the most vulnerable), have empowered fringe voices and speculative theories that have increasingly reached mainstream audiences. 

One epicentre of this new disinformation nexus is British right-wing commentator Toby Young, who has become a top publisher of demonstrably false and scientifically illiterate COVID-19 misinformation. Yet Young was recently featured in the Financial Times for his COVID-19 publishing, and has ties to some of the most influential figures in British establishment conservatism across policy, media and parliament – raising questions about how fringe pseudo-science is attempting to influence public discourse through the prism of ‘free speech’.


Free Speech or Fake Speech

Toby Young – the London associate editor of Quillette magazine – founded the Free Speech Union (FSU) in late February 2020 to defend the free speech rights of its members. The FSU’s advisory council includes several well-known right-wing media personalities such as Julia Hartley-Brewer of talkRADIO, Allison Pearson of the Telegraph, David Rose of the Daily Mail, and Paul Staines of Guido Fawkes. This means that Young’s work has extensive reach among mainstream conservative influencers. 

Toby Young’s other FSU advisors include a number of senior academics and public figures: Baroness Claire Fox; Policy Exchange integration chief David Goodhart, appointed by Liz Truss as a Commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC); Professor Matthew Goodwin of the University of Kent; David Green of Civitas; Professor Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck; Mark Littlewood, the director general of the hard-Brexit lobby group the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA); Lord Matt Ridley, the climate-denying Conservative coal baron; world-renowned bestselling author Lionel Shriver – to name just a few.

Young’s admirable ability to gather this network of powerful voices across the spectrum of right-wing punditry, academia, and policy is striking evidence of the extent to which his work infiltrates public discourse. It also goes some way towards explaining the penetration of pseudo-scientific COVID-19 disinformation into the mainstream media.

In April, Young launched the website LockdownSceptics.org where he has published and promoted ‘scepticism’ toward public health responses to COVID-19, with a particular focus on the UK. 

For all intents and purposes, though, Lockdown Sceptics is essentially a front for Toby Young’s FSU. The FSU logo is stamped on every page of the website, and the platform is designed and maintained by Ian Rons, FSU co-founder and company secretary. 

Despite Young’s claim to want to “avoid conspiracy theories”, LockdownSceptics.org has rapidly become a hotbed of pseudo-scientific conspiracy theories, fake news, and disinformation.

Among the most egregious pieces of disinformation, Young has published on Lockdown Sceptics is an unverified and unverifiable ‘investigative report’ claiming to interview a registered nurse whistleblowing on how she has spent five months during the COVID-19 crisis working at an empty 800-capacity hospital where she spent all day doing nothing. The implication of the piece, as illustrated by how it was interpreted on social media and Lockdown Sceptics commenters, was that the pandemic was being deliberately exaggerated as part of a wider unexplained conspiracy.


Fake News and Fear Mongering

The empty hospital story created a narrative that would tend to undermine public trust and create a climate of paranoia.

The author of that piece, Gavin Phillips, is not a journalist but described himself to Byline Times as a businessman who sells Photoshop plugins. 

His only relevant qualification for writing the article is that he is a proud COVID denier who runs a Twitter account spreading conspiracy theories about the pandemic. Among them, Phillips repeatedly promotes a website called ‘Stop World Control’ which claims COVID-19 is a planned hoax to impose world government and surveillance microchips.

Phillips explained to Byline Times that he made up his mind very early during the pandemic, believing that it was a fake crisis manufactured by governments. 

“When Boris Johnson declared the lockdown on 23 March I was quite shocked. I did not believe such measures were necessary,” he told me. “As we progressed into April it became abundantly clear to me that there was no pandemic. I used Twitter as a very useful research tool. It’s like a newswire service with people posting useful articles and opinions you won’t see in the mainstream media. I have learned long ago never to trust the mainstream media, and I did not believe any of their fear-mongering about their ‘millions will die’ nonsense… As we went into June, I could not believe that the Government was still pushing the lies about the so-called massive COVID-19 deaths.” 

Having publicised these views on Twitter since the crisis began, Phillips said the alleged nurse saw his tweets and got in touch; he had put out a specific call to healthcare workers for “inside information”. The article describes the nurse saying: “I did not think this was a pandemic from the start. I think people were being intentionally frightened and this is what captured my attention.” The piece was pitched to several other publications – UnHerd, the Telegraph, OffGuardian – who all turned it down, before Toby Young took an interest.

Phillips said that he had verified the nurse’s license number to check that she did indeed work in the profession, but acknowledged failing to fact-check any of her claims. He didn’t even ask her which hospital she was working at, and did not attempt to verify any of her allegations about the said hospital himself: “I did not ask her which hospital it was. I did not want to push it further. She was quite nervous about it all, because if her identity is exposed, her life will be hell,” Phillips said. “Even if I knew which hospital it was, I could never gain access to it. Even if you could bluff your way into the hospital, you would never be allowed to wander around it. So what possible evidence could you collect?”

In short, Phillips took her claims on faith. When asked if I could verify her identity in confidence to fact-check the story, Phillips claimed that the nurse had refused. He also said that Lockdown Sceptics did nothing to verify or fact-check the accuracy of any of the assertions in the interview.

Byline Times asked Toby Young about these claims, but he chose not to reply to my request for comment.


Forgetting to Fact-Check

As for Phillips, he was reluctant to give away the regional location of the alleged hospital. But, with some prodding, he eventually said that it was somewhere further south of London, not far from Epsom. He remarked that the nurse’s own colleagues at the hospital did not agree with her views – and that attendance at the hospital appeared to now be returning to normal. “If they find out, well, her colleagues will say to her why have you been saying all this.” 

While there is no reason to assume the story’s validity, it is not inconsistent with what we already know. It’s no big revelation that some hospitals in the south of England had fewer patients overall during the peak of the pandemic due to the success of rapid NHS preparations. Data between April and June (within the period described by the alleged nurse) shows that the average number of occupied beds at hospitals in Surrey declined by 37% compared to the same period the preceding year. This was because frantic NHS efforts to increase capacity led to an increase in bed availability along with the cancellation of elective operations, and earlier discharges. 

In other words, the reality is the complete opposite of LockdownSceptics.org’s scientifically fraudulent claims

“While more beds were made available, there were actually fewer people in hospital as elective care was cancelled”, reported SurreyLive a month before Lockdown Sceptics’ article. It is, therefore, no surprise that some hospital staff in these areas experienced far less than the usual workload for a limited period of time.

Byline Times raised this data with Young, but he offered no response.

Due to the nature of the epidemic spread – more rapid in densely populated areas – the situation was often very different. University College Hospital in London, for instance, was stretched to capacity in April. This was corroborated by video footage, and I obtained first-hand confirmation from a doctor at the hospital as early as mid-March about the worsening situation there.

If there was any truth at all to Lockdown Sceptics’ ‘exclusive’ nurse story, it appears to have been based on the scientific illiteracy of a healthcare worker who, already biased toward conspiratorial COVID-19 denialism, did not understand the complex variegated dynamics of the unfolding pandemic as it impacted on Britain’s healthcare system, and gravitated eagerly toward Phillips when she found a fellow ‘plandemic’ believer (assuming, of course, that she is real).

Yet publications like The Telegraph have wrongly seized on such narratives to claim falsely that hospitals are simply “half empty” – a notion refuted in the British Medical Journal by NHS geriatrics consultant Dr David Oliver.


Obfuscating Testing

Yet it doesn’t stop there. Lockdown Sceptics has published a wide range of other pseudo-science, fuelling conspiracy theories about COVID-19. Among its most popular posts are attempts by ex-Pfizer executive Mike Yeadon to cast doubt on PCR tests, implying that false-positives are so high that the entire COVID-19 epidemic is largely an artefact of testing. These claims have been thoroughly debunked – including by scientists writing for UnHerd.

Yeadon is frequently touted by COVID-19 denialists as a credible independent voice, but he has been funded by the Conservative-led UK government, a relationship he has not declared in his public writings about COVID-19. From 2014 to 2016, his pharmaceutical firm Ziarco received a £1.7 million grant from the Government’s Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK). In 2017, the board’s then-chairman, Phil Smith, was appointed co-chair of the Government’s Digital Skills Partnership Board. Smith’s fellow co-chair was then Digital Secretary and current Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Smith’s current board co-chair is the new Digital Secretary Matt Warman, who before going into politics was technology editor at The Telegraph for a decade.

Yeadon, then, appears to be linked to a cross-section of disgruntled conservatives who early on in the pandemic had attempted to promote a ‘herd immunity’ strategy.

Contrary to Yeadon’s claims amplified via Lockdown Sceptics, the peer-reviewed scientific literature on PCR testing for COVID-19 tells quite the opposite story. One study led by Dr Paul S. Wikramaratna of Oxford University’s Evolutionary Ecology of Infectious Disease group points out that the greater risk is from false-negatives, rather than false-positives: “… the probability of false-positives is low, but false negatives are possible depending on the individual, swab type and timing as infection progresses.”

In August, a study in Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine examined testing data and similarly found that: “Positive RT-PCR results have a predictive value of 98% at 5% pretest probability and 99% and more at pretest probabilities of 10% and above” – compared to a false-negative rate of around 13%. 

In the same month, the New England Journal of Medicine published an analysis by scientists from Harvard, Yale and the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, reviewing a range of studies finding that the probability of false-negatives could be as high as 29% in some circumstances depending on the context, such as the way the tests are conducted and timing of tests compared to symptom onset. 

Indeed, a paper in Mayo Clinic Proceedings warned in April that the real risk was that false-negatives would mean we underestimate the scale of the epidemic, while encouraging large numbers of infected people to spread the virus – in effect, accelerating the epidemic and putting more people at risk.

“Even with sensitivity values as high as 90%, the magnitude of risk from false-negative test results will be substantial as testing becomes more widespread and the prevalence of COVID-19 infection rises,” observed the paper by three top Mayo Clinic medical experts.

“Why is this relevant to stopping the spread of COVID-19? False-negative results are consequential. Individuals with these results may relax physical distancing and other personal measures designed to reduce the transmission of the virus to others. In the case of clinicians, they may be sent to the frontlines of care and inadvertently transmit the virus to patients and colleagues, further straining the already precarious ability of the health care system to respond to the pandemic.”

To illustrate the potential magnitude of this problem they noted that if, for instance, 80% of Madrid’s 6.5 million residents became infected by COVID-19, mass testing would result in 520,000 people being “falsely classified as free of infection.” Similarly in California, if half the population became infected, comprehensive testing would potentially produce as many as 2 million false-negative results. And even if only 1% of this population were tested, this would still produce 20,000 false-negative results.

In other words, the reality is the complete opposite of Lockdown Sceptics’ claims. While at high levels of testing false-positives could, of course, pose a problem, they would statistically be far outweighed by a greater number of false-negatives: in short, we are more likely to miss real cases of COVID-19 than to falsely overestimate case numbers.

These issues are constantly being openly discussed and debated in the scientific literature. Anyone remotely familiar with this research on PCR testing would know that medical experts are deeply aware of the relevant complexities and challenges, and that these are constantly being taken into account when developing public health strategies. What we also know is that countries in East Asia where comprehensive mass testing has been successfully deployed alongside rapid response trace and isolate policies, and border controls, have kept both COVID-19 infection rates and deaths to a minimum, while evading a prolonged cycle of repeated draconian lockdowns. None of this research seems to have been of interest to Lockdown Sceptics.

In turn, the views expressed on Young’s platform have been amplified by conservative pundits like Julia Hartley-Brewer and Allison Pearson. Yeadon, for instance, was featured by Hartley-Brewer on talkRADIO in early November claiming that “the pandemic is fundamentally over in the UK” – a claim exposed as inaccurate by science news watchdog Health Feedback. 


Setting a Price on Life

Toby Young is using his platform to promote fringe voices whose theories have been overwhelmingly rejected by the vast majority of public health scientists. This disinformation has, in turn, been promoted across mainstream conservative networks and is putting the public at risk, by actively encouraging people to avoid credible public health measures: masks, testing, social distancing.

As Byline Times has revealed, ‘herd immunity’ was pushed as a policy early in the pandemic by a cohort of Government advisors around Dominic Cummings. But as the data poured in, and as public awareness of the follies of this approach mounted, it became clear that herd immunity would maximise both COVID-19 fatalities and economic destruction. As the Government shifted away from this approach, Lockdown Sceptics was launched as a lobbying tool to advocate a laissez-faire approach. 

This is the result of ideology. A month before he launched Lockdown Sceptics, Young wrote that “spending £350 billion to prolong the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people is an irresponsible use of taxpayer’s money.”

This ‘survival of the fittest’ moral philosophy does not come out of the blue. As we will reveal in part two of this investigation, Young’s apparent ability to put a price on life stems from his underlying political beliefs, and particularly his flirtation with eugenics.

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