Today
Thu 29 July 2021

Nafeez Ahmed reports on an open letter published in April, which was coordinated by a Government advisor and signed by those behind the controversial ‘herd immunity’ declaration

A Government advisor on the Coronavirus pandemic, who claimed that young people and children are better off getting infected than vaccinated as a way of “topping up” population immunity, was behind an effort by supporters of the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) in April to convince the Government to end all COVID-19-related protections, Byline Times can reveal.

The GBD advocated a “focused protection” – or ‘herd immunity’ approach – to the pandemic. The lobbying effort also involved a range of notorious COVID-19 disinformation groups which have promoted anti-vaccine pseudoscience. 

Professor Robert Dingwall sits on the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Viral Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) sub-group on COVID-19 vaccines.

He is a sociologist by profession who has also provided technical assessments to the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) and the Moral and Ethical Advisory Group, advising Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty. 

At the end of June – less than a week before the Prime Minister confirmed the lifting of protections on 19 July – Prof Dingwall tweeted: “Given the low risk of COVID for most teenagers, it is not immoral to think that they may be better protected by natural immunity generated through infection than by asking them to take the possible risk of a vaccine.” 

The comments were reported in The Times and the Telegraph on the same day without criticism. Prof Dingwall further made clear that he believed that mass infections in children could be a good way of “topping up” population immunity in the long-term. “The pandemic will end through natural immunity, whether from vaccination or prior infection,” he said. “A last wave of mild infections in unvaccinated younger people may well be what we are now seeing.”


The GBD Lobbying Effort

Byline Times can now reveal that, back in April, Prof Dingwall was the main coordinator of an open letter demanding that the Government lift all COVID-19 protections, signed by 10 signatories of the GBD.

This newspaper has previously reported that the open letter – of which Prof Dingwall was a co-signatory – was co-signed by a key founder of the GBD, Oxford professor Sunetra Gupta. 

The GBD’s proposed strategy of letting the virus run to achieve herd immunity by natural infection has been widely criticised by more than 7,000 public health scientists. The declaration was sponsored by a right-wing libertarian think tank plugged into the Koch-backed climate science denial network, with a history of spreading misinformation on behalf of private health and tobacco lobbies. Most of the GBD’s supposed medical scientific signatories remain unverified and unvetted. 

Another key signatory of the open letter was Carl Heneghan – who sits alongside the three main GBD founders, Professor Sunetra Gupta, Professor Martin Kulldorf and Professor Jay Bhattacharya, on the scientific advisory board of ‘Collateral Global’. This is an anti-lockdown venture set-up by Prof Gupta’s partner, Alexander Caccia.

Caccia was the GBD’s chief architect and drafted its main text. Collateral Global is essentially the successor organisation to the GBD, and run by its co-founders. Other GBD signatories who backed the open letter in April include another Government advisor, David Livermore; Ellen Townsend; Mike Hulme; Karol Sikora, Anthony Brookes; Angus Dalgleish; and Lisa White. 

Both Profs Gupta and Heneghan briefed Boris Johnson and the Chancellor last in September, when they appear to have influenced the Government’s decision to delay a ‘circuit-breaker’ – lockdown leading to an estimated 1.3 million extra COVID-19 infections. 


Coordinating the GBD Lobby

The open letter was the brainchild of Prof Dingwall – who was not merely a signatory, but appears to have helped draft it and invited others to co-sign it as part of another GBD lobbying effort to get the Government to adopt a mass infection strategy. 

When asked by Byline Times about whether she knew that she was signing an open letter co-signed by GBD signatories, Professor Jackie Cassell said on Twitter: “I deliberately did not ask @rwjdingwall [Robert Dingwall’s Twitter account] who was signing.”

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Prof Cassell’s comments revealed that she was not originally involved in drafting the letter, but that Dingwall had approached her with a complete draft and a request to sign. Prof Dingwall’s coordination of the letter to obtain its signatories confirms his key role working with the GBD’s architects, founders, authors and signatories to use it in order to exert pressure on the Government. The Government’s decision to follow the letter’s core demands suggests a resounding success for this lobbying effort.

Prof Dingwall did not deny working closely with the GBD’s co-authors and founders in coordinating the April open letter to lobby the Government to end pandemic protections. But he told Byline Times: “I did not sign the Great Barrington Declaration… My professional advice and actions are derived from my knowledge and expertise accumulated over 50 years experience as a sociologist researching issues in medicine, law, science and technology, often in interdisciplinary collaborations. These are matters of public record. This experience and expertise is available to anyone with a serious interest in making use of it, regardless of their political or journalistic affiliations. It is entirely up to them whether they accept it or ignore it.”

Asked further about whether he supports or rejects the GBD, he said: “Like many such documents, the GBD is a curate’s egg, which contains reasonable points and unreasonable ones. I considered that the latter outweighed the former which is why I declined the invitation to sign.”


Anti-Vaxxer Disinformation Networks

As Byline Times also previously uncovered, many of the key GBD signatories who supported Prof Dingwall’s letter demanding the total end of protections are, or have been involved in, groups and networks that have promoted pseudoscientific misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 and also promoted virulent anti-vaccine sentiments and conspiracy theories.

Profs Gupta, Kulldorf and Bhattacharya, for instance, sat on the advisory board of PANDA – the South Africa pandemic disinformation platform which has pushed anti-vaxxer claims describing vaccines as “inherently dangerous” and rejecting their use even for the vulnerable.

Townsend, Livermore and John Lee sat on the advisory board of HART – another disinformation outlet which published spurious claims of a “correlation between vaccination and COVID-19 deaths”, with the peak of deaths from December 2020 to February 2021 coinciding “with the mass roll-out of novel mRNA/DNA vaccines on an extremely vulnerable population”.

HART has close links to the ‘parents’ lobby group, USforThem, which is working in coordination with the Conservative Party’s COVID Recovery Group. Although the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has approved vaccines for young people aged as young as 12, Prof Dingwall claimed – without evidence – that young people face a “possible risk of a vaccine”.

Prof Dingwall suggested to Byline Times that reporting the anti-vaccine sentiments of the organisations affiliated to his co-signatories would be defamatory. He said: “I am not a member of HART, PANDA or any other such group… You might think that, since I am a member of the JCVI, it could be considered libellous to state or imply that I was an anti-vaxxer.” For the avoidance of doubt, Byline Times is not stating or implying that Prof Dingwall is an anti-vaxxer.

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He also failed to acknowledge the mounting evidence of the risk to children from Long COVID. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that nearly one million people are living with the condition – with symptoms including fatigue and shortness of breath. Of those individuals self-reporting, 40% said that they were experiencing the after effects for more than a year after their initial illness and almost two-thirds said that it had “adversely affected… day-to-day activities”. There is now increasing scientific evidence of COVID-19’s persistent effects on the brain, including in terms of potential loss of brain tissue, and a heightened risk of neurological diseases. 

Prof Dingwall’s role in the lobbying effort appears to have paid off, with the Government’s decision to lift all protections in England on 19 July. The approach is entirely consistent with SAGE modelling, uncovered by Byline Times in June, which confirmed that all Cabinet Office scenarios informing the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown involved a dramatic increase of millions of infections, largely of young people, which would contribute to herd immunity in 2022. 

A statement signed by 120 scientists published in The Lancet – including former Government chief scientific advisor Sir David King – has branded the Government’s mass infection strategy as “dangerous and premature”. Not only would hundreds of thousands of people be likely to acquire Long COVID (as many as 5,000 a day, according to the Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng), letting the virus spread in this way “provides fertile ground for the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants”, which would “place all at risk, including those already vaccinated, within the UK and globally”.

The Department of Health and Social Care did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment, including questions about whether Prof Dingwall’s letter on behalf of the GBD lobby influenced the Government’s mass infection plan.

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