Today
Sun 17 January 2021

As the weekly “Clap For Carers” returns, Adrian Goldberg hears why a frontline hospital consultant is so angry at those who downplay the Coronavirus

It has been a good week for those who deny and downplay the prevalence of COVID-19.

When Rupert Murdoch’s talkRADIO was suspended by YouTube on Tuesday because it was deemed to have broken rules on medical misinformation, professional contrarian Toby Young (an advocate of Sweden’s discredited response to the virus) was given a platform by BBC’s Newsnight to defend the right-wing broadcaster.

Somehow a radio station owned by the world’s most powerful media magnate was allowed, without any hint of irony, to assume the mantle of plucky outsider, bravely challenging the mainstream orthodoxy over COVID-19.

What’s more, they seemed to score a win when YouTube reversed its ban and resumed hosting talkRADIO’s programmes. Despite the fact his platforms have been super-spreaders of contrarian hyperbole, Murdoch himself has already been given the Coronavirus vaccine. Of course.

One of talkRADIO’s most persistent anti-lockdown voices is breakfast show presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer, who seems to believe that a dark conspiracy is afoot. She has warned that, “whatever happens after the lockdown ends, the answer is ALWAYS going to be another lockdown.” 

Her colleague Kevin O’Sullivan has described the latest restrictions as “the death of British freedom” while another, Mark Dolan, said in November: “COVID isn’t destroying Britain, our reaction to it is.”

These dissenting opinions have been echoed on the House of Commons backbenches, with 12 Conservative MPs yesterday voting against the Government’s latest lockdown, including former minister Desmond Swayne who dubbed lockdowns “a complete failure”.

Critics of the Government’s response to the pandemic fall into two broad categories: those who believe that lockdowns cause more harm than good (when other health and economic costs are taken into account), and those who argue that COVID-19 is no worse than a regular influenza outbreak.

Freedom of expression and debate are of course essential to any functioning democracy, but Professor David Oliver – a hospital doctor for 31 years – is wary of having the credibility of the medical profession called into question.

“People who say it’s no different to a normal flu season are not seeing the people we’re seeing,” he told the Byline Times Podcast. “Those of us who’ve worked year in, year out in the service know this is very different.

“If you talk to the radiologists, they’re seeing lots of people with pneumonia in both lungs who require a lot of oxygen and who are very hard to get home and are at risk of deterioration… It’s something quite different to anything we’ve seen before.”


Astroturfing Apathy

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of those who question state-imposed restrictions to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic are motivated by a dogmatic libertarian ideology.

Byline Times Special Investigations Reporter Nafeez Ahmed has revealed links between the Great Barrington Declaration – the Bible for lockdown sceptics – and a network of groups funded by right-wing US billionaire Charles Koch.

Koch’s message has been championed and amplified by mainstream commentators like Toby Young – disseminated to a massive social media audience. And this is having an impact beyond the internet.

Byline Times has discovered that professionally-produced leaflets supporting the Great Barrington Declaration have been posted through letterboxes in parts of South East England, promoting an organisation called ‘Back To Normal’, which claims to have volunteers delivering leaflets in more than 200 constituencies.

A copy of the Back To Normal Leaflet

Back To Normal refused to respond to Byline Times’ questions about the source of its funding. Its website merely claims it is a “public facing, grassroots group”.

Another anti-lockdown activist, Debbie Hicks, recently shared a video she had recorded in the corridors of her local hospital in Gloucester which she said was “empty” – a conclusion strongly denied by the local NHS trust which said it was “extremely busy”.

Hicks’ film – shared by Brexit-supporting London Assembly member David Kurten on Twitter – has been viewed 180,000 times.  

Professor Oliver, who works in a hospital in south-east England, is no Government propagandist. Like many medics he is critical of ministers’ failure to adopt an effective system to test, track and isolate those infected with COVID-19, which might have mitigated the need for lockdowns. And he is scathing about the PPE procurement scandal identified by Byline Times.

But he recently lost a close friend to the virus and is tired of what he regards as the widespread undermining of vital public health messages, especially when he is risking his health every day to save lives.

“It’s quite a scary place to be because you’re coming into work when most people are being asked to stay at home, and you’re going straight into the eye of the storm,” he said.

“It’s almost as if we’re being collectively gaslighted – that everything we’re seeing, everything we’ve faced, everything you know is all a lie. It’s upsetting, and it makes me quite angry”.


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