Disinformation Lobbyists & Brexit Business Bosses Finance conservative COVID Sceptics’ PR
In Part Two of his special investigation, Nafeez Ahmed reveals the funding and pseudoscience of a murky coalition of anti-lockdown groups
The Conservative Party’s COVID Recovery Group of rebel MPs is receiving PR support financed by a COVID-19 disinformation lobby working in alliance with top business leaders, Conservatives donors and Vote Leave backers.
According to the parliamentary register of interests, COVID Recovery Group deputy chair Steve Baker has received a total of £19,500 from three different sources to fund “the services of a media and strategic campaign consultant for the COVID Recovery Group” since November 2020.
Byline Times previously revealed that the consultant in question is Conservative PR guru Ed Barker, who has advised Boris Johnson on his Conservative Party leadership campaign and has provided communications support to Cabinet ministers such as Priti Patel.
The donors of the money include two business leaders and long-time supporters of the Conservative Party who also supported the Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 EU Referendum, along with a murky coalition of anti-lockdown groups with ties to COVID-19 disinformation networks.
Big Oil, Big Money
The register of interests confirms that Baker, a former Brexit Minister from 2017 to 2018, received two donations of £5,000 each – first in November and then again in February – from Matthew Ferrey, a former senior partner at Vitol, the world’s biggest independent oil trading firm.
After leaving Vitol, Ferrey founded Ranworth Capital which invests in the manufacturing of sensors for oil drilling.
Ferrey has donated £735,250 to the Conservative Party since 2008. The oil industry has been a major casualty of the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. Ranworth Capital did not respond to request for comment.
Another donation of £4,500 to support the COVID Recovery Group’s PR came from private equity firm Risk Capital Partners, founded by venture capitalist Luke Johnson – a major business backer of the Vote Leave campaign. Risk Capital Partners invests largely in the consumer, leisure and retail sectors which have been significantly damaged by the impact of COVID-19 responses.
A False Dichotomy
Luke Johnson, who is a former chairman of Pizza Express and executive chairman of Patisserie holdings, was described by Private Eye as “hopelessly exposed as incompetent, negligent, and/or complicit in ‘accounting irregularities’” which led to the collapse of the café chain Patisserie Valerie.
More recently, he has been a vocal critic of COVID-19 social distancing measures, telling CityAM that they amount to “an act of economic self-harm, the unintended consequences of which will do more harm than good”. On BBC’s Question Time, he similarly said: “The collateral damage of this lockdown has to be taken into account. Very soon I believe lockdown will be causing more deaths than the virus.”
While there can be no doubt as to the devastating economic impact of lockdowns – especially in terms of the Government’s failure to adequately support the most vulnerable people and businesses – there is no credible scientific evidence in peer-reviewed literature for Luke Johnson’s belief that lockdowns have produced more deaths than the Coronavirus would have done without any such measures.
Neither Luke Johnson nor any other partners at Risk Capital Partners responded to Byline Times’ request for comment.
Making Kids Unsafe Again
A third donor to the COVID Recovery Group’s PR work is identified in the parliamentary register of interests as ‘The Recovery Alliance’ – an obscure unincorporated association which gave £5,000 to Steve Baker in late January 2021.
On 1 February, The Recovery Alliance launched a new website called costoflockdown.co.uk. It produced a series of high quality graphics and memes with statistics on various health and economic impacts. These were tweeted out in February by Steve Baker, Luke Johnson, other Conservative MPs and celebrities such as Denise Welch.
Baker did not respond to multiple Byline Times inquiries requesting him to identify what The Recovery Alliance is and who its members are. However, The Times – behind a paywall – had quietly reported some of the details in mid-February in a lengthy article about Baroness Simone Finn’s No. 10 appointment. The report stated: “MPs in the COVID Recovery Group, organised by Steve Baker, a perennial backbench Machiavelli, have joined forces with the UsforThem campaign, which has been pressing for schools to re-open, to form an umbrella organisation called The Recovery Alliance. Ed Barker, a political consultant, is bringing them together with business figures who want the focus to shift from health to the economy.”
Ed Barker did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment.
While it is not clear who the other members of this “umbrella organisation” are, UsforThem’s direct involvement in it, financing the Conservative Party’s COVID Recovery Group, demonstrates that Baker’s cause is being supported by an active pandemic disinformation network.
UsforThem, a parents’ lobbying group, appears to operate as part of a network that disseminates pseudoscience on the pandemic, for instance, around the role of schools in transmission, masks, safety measures, as well as other issues such as PCR tests and COVID-19 death certification.
In June, UsforThem coordinated a pre-action legal letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, obtained by Byline Times under Freedom of Information, threatening the Government with a judicial review if it did not re-open schools without safety measures.
The letter was prepared by the same global multi-billion-dollar law firm, DLA Piper, which has advised the Government on its COVID-19 response.
According to The Telegraph, a similar pre-action threat was sent on behalf of UsforThem more recently, demanding that the Government ban the use of face masks in schools on the basis that there is “no scientific evidence” for their use (this is simply untrue and disproven by dozens of studies).
UsforThem did not respond to Byline Times’ questions about which law firm prepared this new pre-action letter.
The first pre-action letter prepared by DLA Piper identified its coordinators as Elizabeth Cole, Christine Brett and Michelle Kingsley. All three have appeared on platforms promoting COVID-19 misinformation and pseudoscience.
In January this year, Cole appeared on the Unlocked show affiliated with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party (now Reform UK). The platform regularly promotes COVID-19 pseudoscience. A regular fixture on the platform, for instance, is pathologist Dr John Lee. In the same month, he claimed that the number of deaths in England and Wales was “below the average point of deaths at this time of year”. In reality, they were 16% above the 27-year average and 20% above the five-year average.
Featured in the same episode as Cole was Reclaim Party London Mayoral candidate Laurence Fox, who has also strayed into conspiratorial COVID-19 misinformation. He has, for instance, urged that Londoners must not “get carried away with things like vaccines”, claimed that some doctors were deliberately adding non-COVID-19 deaths to boost the official tally to support the “Government’s fear-based narrative”, and denied the scientific evidence for Long COVID.
In May 2020, Brett appeared on a YouTube show hosted by the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH) to oppose social distancing in schools. Among other things, the ANH is a promoter of anti-vaxxer misinformation. Included in its extensive resources claiming that all vaccines are inherently problematic is a video titled ‘Stop Health Authorities Claiming Vaccines are ‘Safe’’, as well as vigorous attempts to rehabilitate discredited claims of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
Brett has also written for The Conservative Woman, another right-wing platform with a history of climate science denialism. It now regularly publishes COVID-19 pseudoscience such as an article claiming that PCR tests produce an “epidemic just in false positive cases”. To impugn PCR tests, the article referred to a critical review of a major study on the tests involving semi-retired ex-Pfizer scientist Dr Michael Yeadon, who is now an ‘anti-vax hero’ promoting demonstrably false COVID-19 misinformation.
A spokesperson for DLA Piper declined to comment in response to questions about why a prestigious global law firm would provide legal representation to a pandemic disinformation lobby.
As an example of the kind of sophisticated disinformation promoted by The Conservative Woman, the same article referred to a viral video of the late inventor of the test, Dr Karry Mullis, in which he said that the PCR test is “just a process that is used to make a whole lot of something out of something. It doesn’t tell you that you are sick and it doesn’t tell you that the thing you ended up with was going to hurt you or anything like that”.
This quote has been deliberately taken out of context to avoid acknowledging that Mullis’ claims were made in relation to his pseudoscientific scepticism about the link between HIV and AIDs. Despite his outstanding invention of the PCR test for which he won a Nobel Prize, Mullis was notorious as “a vociferous critic of widely accepted scientific ideas, ridiculing the notions that CFCs caused the ozone hole, that humans caused climate change, and that HIV caused AIDS”.
A pre-pandemic article from the University of California points out how the PCR test’s ability to replicate a DNA fragment was a scientific turning point that “superpowered molecular biology” and transformed other fields. However, Mullis did not retain rights to his own invention. His employers made hundreds of millions of dollars from it, leaving him with “an eternal grudge… He felt he’d been ripped off… [that] others had sought credit for what should be solely his”. That provides the context for why Mullis would later question “the very DNA analysis made possible by his invention of PCR”.
USforThem’s founder, Michelle Kingsley, has also disseminated misinformation on Twitter about the Coronavirus pandemic, such as an inaccurate graph of case numbers in South Africa put out by barrister Francis Hoar. Hoar is a signatory to an open letter titled ‘The Chinese Communist Party’s Global Lockdown Fraud’, co-signed by Simon Dolan, whom Hoar represented in his failed effort to sue the Government over lockdown. Dolan is an executive producer of Renegade, a documentary idolising conspiracy theorist David Icke.
For its scientific justification, UsforThem’s cover letter in its threat of legal action against the Government included reference to an academic affiliated with several COVID-19 disinformation platforms.
The letter referred to “a growing body of evidence demonstrating the harm social distancing causes to children (including the open letters from Ellen Townsend, the RCPCH and Sunil Bhopal)”.
Ellen Townsend is a professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham who has supported several UsforThem campaigns, including its demand to ban masks in schools. Townsend is repeatedly cited as a source on the group’s website and in interviews. She has also repeatedly signed several open letters published by UsforThem.
Townsend has published work on the impact of lockdown on young people’s mental health, but has no discernible relevant public health expertise in pandemics, COVID-19 or mask efficacy beyond that. But she is connected to a global COVID-19 disinformation network.
Townsend is a signatory to the discredited Great Barrington Declaration ‘herd immunity’ document, which advocates for a focused protection approach that allows the Coronavirus to circulate among young people. Byline Times has previously revealed its backing from the Koch climate science denial network, along with its efforts to manufacture an image of support from the wider scientific community through acquiring fraudulent signatories. Nearly 7,000 scientists and public health experts have rejected the viability of the Great Barrington Declaration approach.
Deleted archived webpages for PCRclaims.co.uk – a project claiming to offer legal support for claims resulting from PCR testing – identify Townsend as a “public health spokesperson” who agrees that “the inappropriate use of Pillar 2 PCR & LFT testing must end immediately”.
PCRclaims.co.uk links to websites actively purveying disinformation. For instance, the first item on its page of recommended resources is a link to a video on BitChute.com.
The Anti-Defamation League describes BitChute.com as “a hotbed for violent, conspiratorial and hate-filled video propaganda, and a recruiting ground for extremists”. This includes material “calling for the extermination of Jews, glorifying violent beatings by police and anti-government militias, vilifying black people and demonising immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community and Muslims”.
The specific video, titled ‘Crimes Against Humanity’, features Dr Reiner Fuellmich – a German lawyer claiming that there is no pandemic because it is an artefact of PCR tests generating false positives. Fuellmich’s claims have been identified as “false” by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies fact-checking service.
Ellen Townsend is currently identified as a “spokesperson” for another anti-lockdown group called the Health Advisory and Recovery Team (HART). A member of UsforThem’s leadership team, retired paediatrician Dr Ros Jones, is also an expert member.
Hutchinson is an active proponent of COVID-19 pseudoscience and other conspiratorial disinformation. He has claimed that “vaccination is pointless” and implied that vaccines are part of a genocidal global conspiracy: “An urgent message for those wanting a Vaccine Passport. Do you realise your passport will need to be kept up-to-date which means they could at any point, for example, say you needed to have a vaccine a week to do anything? #Cashcow #Control #Genocide.”
He also tweeted: “Mike Yeadon on the vaccine ‘it’s my considered view that it is entirely possible that this will be used for massive-scale depopulation.’ Over my dead body.”
He retweeted a claim denying that there is a real pandemic, described as “the results of PCR mass testing”. Hutchinson commented: “Why isn’t anyone listening? Because they want to destroy society. Reset.”
He has claimed that the entire pandemic is engineered to benefit a minority of elites, and promoted ideas parallel to the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory:
“Yesterday I considered the source, now ‘The Fear of The COVID’ Who benefits: Sells newspapers Governments Agenda-ists Fascism, Communism, Globalism, Climatism, Eugenics Big Pharma The Anti-Trump – as above plus Democrats, Armouries, world leaders, UN, WEF, WHO, Monarchy, Paedo.”
Elsewhere, he tweeted that “99% of the corona bollocks was to get rid of Trump” and praised Donald Trump for being “against climate” and “chasing paediphile [sic] rings”.
Neither Ellen Townsend nor HART responded to Byline Times’ requests for comment.
Other HART team members include Professor David Livermore and pathologist Dr Clare Craig. Despite being a Great Barrington Declaration signatory, which the Government has disavowed, Livermore sits on the Government’s Advisory Committee on Antimicrobial Prescribing, Resistance and Healthcare Associated Infection.
Craig also denies that there is a real pandemic, which she has depicted as an artifact of testing, and claims falsely that doctors are falsifying COVID-19 death certificates. As Conservative MP Neil O’Brien has painstakingly documented, Dr Craig deleted the entirety of her tweets from 2020 which had spread “dangerous disinformation” disproven by actual events. Craig does not currently have a license to practice as a doctor, and her views have been disowned by the Royal College of Pathologists. Dr Tanya Kymenko, HART spokesperson, has declared that she would not allow her 18-year-old son to get vaccinated.
UsforThem, part of the new secretive Recovery Alliance that is financing the Conservative COVID Recovery Group’s PR, is therefore embedded in a wide network of pseudoscientific disinformation about the Coronavirus pandemic.
UsforThem, the COVID Recovery Group and their mutual PR consultant did not respond to requests for comment – including Steve Baker, who received the donations to fund the COVID Recovery Group’s PR.
The Conservative Party’s COVID Recovery Group thus appears to be working in an opaque partnership with an active disinformation network promoting conspiratorial pseudoscience. This is allowing false and inaccurate views about the pandemic to circulate among politicians, business leaders and other key stakeholders, in order to influence Government decision-making and public opinion.
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