Today
Sat 23 October 2021

As Covid lobbying groups combine to oppose child vaccination, Nafeez Ahmed and Karam Bales investigate how conspiracy theories and pseudoscience disfigure public debate

A Government advisor who sat on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which in September recommended not giving vaccines to children aged 12-15 years old, appears to be secretly linked with organisations that operate as part of a COVID-19 disinformation network that is now involved in a controversial new anti-vaxxer campaign called ‘Safer to Wait’. The new campaign appears to be part of a wider effort to radicalise members of the public, particularly parents, against vaccines and health workers.

On Tuesday 28 September when Telegraph cartoonist Bob Moran took to Twitter to call for NHS palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke to be verbally abused “for the rest of her worthless existence”.

Leaked chat logs reveal that Moran is also a member of the Health Advisory & Recovery Team (HART) – a COVID-19 disinformation group which harbours a range of conspiratorial views about the pandemic – and a signatory to an anti-mask letter organised by UsforThem, a ‘parents’ lobby involved in a wide range of disinformation with strong ties to the Conservative Party.

Moran’s outburst is a prominent example of how an ongoing campaign against vaccines suggests an effort by pandemic disinformation groups to infiltrate mainstream institutions, with the potential to foster new forms of extremism. Yet both the organisations he is affiliated with – UsforThem and HART – appear to have attempted to lobby government, parliament and media, including the JCVI.

In early September, JCVI member and paediatrician Professor Adam Finn quote tweeted Michelle (‘Molly’) Kingsley, the founding head of UsforThem. Finn thanked Kingsley for her “positive feedback” in support of his article in The Times, in which he argued that it is safer to wait for more evidence on vaccine safety before parents allow children from 12-15 years old to get vaccinated, due to myocarditis (inflammation of the heart) as a rare adverse incident. 

As Byline Times has previously reported, UsforThem’s founders and members have been involved in a wide range of groups and networks promoting COVID-19 and anti-vaxxer disinformation and misinformation. Byline Times has also previously revealed that UsforThem is closely connected to the HART group, with which it shares several members including the retired paediatrician Dr Rosamond (‘Ros’) Jones. 

UsforThem founder Michelle Kingsley has frequently promoted anti-vaxxer content on her Twitter account.

More recently, Byline Times can reveal, Michelle Kingsley’s UsforThem has been linked to a new anti-vaxxer disinformation campaign called ‘Safer to Wait’, which in turn is a hub for a wide variety of COVID-19 disinformation and anti-vaxxer groups around the world. 

Far from being an aberration, new evidence suggests that during his stint at the JCVI, then member Robert Dingwall was connected to the UK’s most prominent anti-vaxxer networks including HART and UsforThem, in order to “influence from inside.”


Our Friendly ‘On the Inside’

Professor Adam Finn’s decision to quote tweet a group linked to anti-vaxxer disinformation networks raises the urgent question as to whether the JVCI panel has been subjected to a concerted lobbying effort from such networks. 

Finn told Byline Times that his tweets do not represent endorsements and that he does not have time to check out the people he replies to on Twitter. He added: “Until you and others informed me, I was not aware that ‘UsforThem’ or ‘HART’ even existed.” 

For the avoidance of doubt, there is no suggestion that Finn is remotely sympathetic to the anti-vaccine movement. However, Byline Times can reveal that Finn’s former colleague on the JCVI subgroup for COVID-19 vaccines, Professor Robert Dingwall, appears to have secretly been in contact with the HART disinformation group during his advisory role to government – raising the question of whether he had influenced JCVI’s framing and approach to examining risks around infection and vaccines.

Dingwall, a consultant sociologist, was previously a member of the Government’s NERVTAG and JCVI subgroup until a ‘refresh’ in early August saw him leave. However, he remains a Government advisor, sitting on the Moral and Ethical Advisory Group which advises Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty. 

Byline Times has previously revealed that Dingwall is linked to a range of pandemic disinformation networks including the Great Barrington Declaration and its successor organisation Collateral Global, many of whose signatories and members are also involved in UsforThem and HART. Dingwall previously told Byline Times that he is not a member of HART or any other such group, and denied being an anti-vaxxer.

However, internal HART chat logs leaked to Byline Times and other outlets in July suggest that Dingwall, who has claimed that it would be better to allow teenagers and children to get infected with COVID-19 than to be vaccinated, was working “on the inside” to support these pandemic disinformation networks. In August, Dingwall would later claim that his views are largely representative of those held by other members of the JCVI Government advisory panel.

HART and its members have not only promoted extraordinary QAnon-style conspiracy theories about a global depopulation agenda, but have published anti-vaxxer misinformation claiming that the COVID-19 vaccines have been the real culprit behind mass deaths attributed to the pandemic. 

The leaked logs of internal discussions among HART members reveal that despite its veneer of public respectability, the group privately believes that COVID-19 vaccines killed more people than they saved, discussed the idea of hanging nurses, and frequently share bizarre theories about 5G, vaccines and magnetism. HART analyst Joel Smalley, for instance, released a paper in March 2021 implying that COVID19 deaths were actually caused by vaccinations.

Yet the logs also show several members of HART describing how they had been working with Robert Dingwall during his advisory role to NERVTAG and JCVI to “influence” the Government. 

In January 2021, HART founder Narice Bernard asked anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorist Clare Craig: “Dingwall is on the inside and friendly are you in touch.” 

Craig has previously claimed that COVID-19 death certificates are false, among other outlandish ideas. 

Ex-Pfizer executive Mike Yeadon, described as a notorious “anti-vax hero” and conspiracy theorist by Reuters who falsely claims that the COVID-19 vaccines cause infertility in women, further said in the HART logs in January 2021: “I was in touch with Dingwall back in early autumn. He told me he was staying in to try and influence from inside.” 

Yet another HART member mentioned that Dingwall had provided them advice on opposing vaccine passports.

HART did not reply to Byline Times’ requests to comment. Robert Dingwall has not replied to Byline Times’ requests for comment. However, after leaving JCVI, he told The Guardian that his views against vaccination of teenagers and children, and in support of children getting infected with COVID-19, were largely representative of JCVI: “I am being portrayed as some kind of lone voice critic of vaccination for [teenagers] but at no point have my views been any different from the broad consensus on JCVI.” 


Political and Media Lobbying

The JCVI case illustrates how misinformation and disinformation groups are increasingly disfiguring the public debate on vaccines, and potentially distorting Government assessments. 

Many of the groups have met with Conservative Party MPs and successfully influenced UK Government policies and thinking in other ways. UsforThem receives PR support from former Boris Johnson advisor Ed Barker who also runs PR for Conservative MP Steve Baker’s Covid Recovery Group

On 21 September, Tory MP for Penistone and Stockbridge Miriam Cates – co-chair of the New Social Covenant with fellow MP Danny Kruzer, who was appointed Boris Johnson’s political secretary in 2019 – told parliament: “I want to pay tribute to UsForThem who are working tirelessly to stand up for children and campaign for their lives to be allowed to return to normal.”

Yet UsforThem’s consistent tendency toward anti-vaccine pseudoscience is a matter of public record. In May 2021, UsforThem founder Michelle Kingsley wrote an article completely rejecting vaccination for all children of all age groups and suggesting that COVID-19 vaccines in general could turn out to be unsafe in the “long term,” a spurious notion with no scientific merit. In the article, Kingsley repeatedly cites Dingwall to justify her views on preventing children from being vaccinated.

What she didn’t acknowledge in her article is that UsforThem had previously worked with the Alliance for Natural Health, an anti-vaxxer group that believes that all vaccines are inherently dangerous, and promotes discredited claims about the MMR vaccine and autism and that it continued to work with the anti-vaxxer group HART. 

Rosamond Jones, who sits on UsforThem’s Leadership Team, has worked very closely with the HART network to campaign against vaccination. The leaked HART chat logs reveal that UsforThem and HART were actively coordinating via Ros Jones with Mike Yeadon to prevent approval of the Pfizer vaccine for children.

Ros Jones’ anti-vaxxer activism included asking HART for expert witnesses for potential legal action against the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the logs confirm. In fact, the entire preceding year, Jones and HART had focused on campaigning to prevent teenagers and children from being authorised for vaccination, after which one HART member proclaimed “it may be too late for humanity.”

Miriam Cates did not respond to request for comment about why she would pay tribute to an organisation actively involved in promoting anti-vaccine disinformation.

The HART chat logs also reveal that the organisation has impeccable media access through freelance PR manager Jemma Moran, sister-in-law of Telegraph cartoonist Bob Moran. As HART’s media coordinator she has tried to gain publicity for the group with the BBC, Telegraph, Daily Mail, Talk Radio, and many others – often with considerable success. 

Most recently, HART member Dr Renee Hoenderkamp appeared on the primetime This Morning television show on ITV to oppose vaccines for children. A spokesperson for ITV told Byline Times that Hoenderkamp’s appearance was part of a balanced debate “reflecting the genuine concern amongst parents of vaccinating youngsters” and denied any “discussion of conspiracy theories”.

UsForThem did not reply to Byline Times request for comment


The Controversy around Vaccinating Children

The key issue of contention is around a potential link between myocarditis and vaccination in children. US data shows that there have been 45-80 cases of myocarditis per million among the 12-17-year-olds who have received both doses, most of whom are male. While a legitimate concern, it is exceedingly rare – affecting only .008% of this cohort – and is quickly resolved. The data further shows that vaccination of this group prevents about 400 COVID hospitalisations per million and over 100 admissions to intensive care. And there is compelling evidence of a higher myocarditis risk from unvaccinated COVID infection.

However, Professor Adam Finn told Byline Times that: “The literature on this is conflicting and both of the most widely quoted papers have serious methodological problems. The risks in both situations are extremely low. The most important residual uncertainty is around whether or not vaccine-associated myocarditis will result in residual fibrosis and this question requires clarification urgently – but cannot be answered before the passage of time. It is important that people are aware of this uncertainty and the very small but nevertheless potentially important associated risk.”

Yet many scientists believe that Finn’s portrayal of the available scientific evidence is misleading. There are now several studies whose methodological approaches have not been criticised, which have found a greater risk of myocarditis from infection rather than vaccines, and that in contrast to Finn’s claim the rare cases of myocarditis symptoms following vaccination resolve rapidly. 

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A peer-reviewed study in Paediatrics in the summer found that 86% of vaccinated young patients with myocarditis experienced recovery within 35 days. This finding was corroborated by a separate peer-reviewed study in Children in July, concluding that: “… all myocarditis and pericarditis cases are mild and resolve within a few days to few weeks. The bottom line is that the risk of cardiac complications among children and adults due to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection far exceeds the minimal and rare risks of vaccination-related transient myocardial or pericardial inflammation.”

One preprint study by scientists in Ohio attempted to quantify this increased risk. It concluded that the risk of myocarditis is six times higher for unvaccinated children who get infected with COVID-19 than for vaccinated children. A peer-reviewed study in the journal Circulation published by the American Heart Association in August similarly concluded that being infected with COVID poses more of a risk of myocarditis than vaccines, and therefore recommended vaccination for 12-17 year olds and above. Finally, another peer-reviewed study accepted in September by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine found that the benefits of vaccination for this age group far outweighed the risks.

While the methodology supporting those conclusions is published, peer-reviewed, and open for scrutiny, the basis of JCVI’s calculations has not been released.

Meanwhile, several preprint studies claiming that the greater risk of myocarditis for children is from vaccines have been found to be deeply flawed. One Canadian paper was withdrawn due to basic statistical inaccuracies. Another was found to be linked to pandemic misinformation organisation Rational Ground through it’s co-author Josh Stevenson, a group described by Yale epidemiologist Professor Gavin Yamey as an “extreme, right wing Covid denialist group.”

Queen Mary University epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani, lead author of the new study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, described JCVI’s conclusions as inexplicable: “While we cannot rule out longer-term impacts in a minority of children – studies are underway to look at these – at the same time, we also know that myocarditis from COVID-19 is very common, and can be severe, and occurs 6 times more commonly than with vaccination. So one cannot weigh possible unknown long term impacts from vaccine associated myocarditis without considering at the very least the same for COVID associated myocarditis which is more common. To make matters worse, early data suggests that there may be long term neurological effects in children from COVID-19 as well. So discussion of theoretical potential long term impacts from vaccines without acknowledging the very real known and unknown impacts from COVID-19 is at the very least misleading and disingenuous.”


Safer to Wait

Now both UsforThem and its sister organisation HART are involved in a new anti-vaxxer campaign called ‘Safer to Wait’, launched in August 2021.

The campaign claims to be supporting parents in making informed decisions regarding the vaccination of children, but exploring its website leads to a range of groups promoting pandemic misinformation and disinformation.

Safer to Wait’s organisers include people from multiple campaigns and networks accused of spreading disinformation including many HART members: Ros Jones of UsforThem; Elizabeth Evans, founder of the UK Medical Freedom Alliance, who sits on the advisory board of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s notorious anti-vaxxer propaganda group, Children’s Health Defense; Karol Sikora and Anthony J. Brookes, both of whom are signatories of the Koch-backed Great Barrington Declaration which calls for a ‘herd immunity by natural infection’ approach to the pandemic, but who also signed Robert Dingwall’s letter to the UK Government demanding a mass infection strategy; as well as HART members Malcolm Loudon, Gerry Quinn, Clare Craig, and John Lee who have promoted various forms of misinformation. 

Lee for instance falsely claimed on TalkRadio in January 2021 that the number of deaths in England and Wales was below average for that time of year when it was in reality above the 20% year average.

The Safer to Wait campaign appears to have begun operating months before its official launch in the summer. On 26 May, parents at Goldington Academy in Bedford reacted angrily after anti-vax leaflets were handed out to children at the school gates. The leaflets said they were produced by a group called Safer to Wait, described as a collective of “concerned parents, teachers, doctors, and lawyers.” 

Education union leaders recently contacted the Department for Education (DfE) after headteachers received similar letters threatening legal action against schools that allow themselves to be used as vaccine centres. The new letters appear to be an escalation from previous threatening letters in regard to mask-wearing in schools, which was raised by school heads at the House of Commons Education Select Committee hearing in March. 

In some cases, threats are moving from online spaces into the real world. On 8 September police were called to The Abbey School in Faversham due to anti-vaxxers accosting students at the school gates. One parent reported that a female member of staff was assaulted by a man from the protest group while another female staff member was verbally abused. 

On 31 August, a headteacher of a secondary school described how anti-vaxxers had attacked the school premises over the bank holiday. He told Byline Times that according to the police, none of the suspects were linked to the school.

There have been many other cases of anti-vaxxer protestors resorting openly to threats of violence. In one video posted from a protest in London during the same weekend, a man wearing a Tyranny Response Team T-shirt, and claiming to be an army veteran, tells Piers Corbyn, brother of the former Labour leader: “We blockade the schools and we stop the f**king nazi’s coming and vaccinating our kids. It starts at schools now, they are coming for our schools, some of them 12, my son’s 12, I’ll tell you what, if they give vaccines to my kids I tell you what, it’s over for any nurse or doctor, it’s over, I will come for you, I will come for you and I will kill you.”

In the video, Piers Corbyn nods along, saying: “Yeah, you’re right, you’re right.” He claps at the conclusion and shakes the man’s hand. Notably, Corbyn’s own anti-vax leaflets have been handed out alongside Safer to Wait’s.

Child vaccination had already been politicised before the JCVI made the UK an outlier against comparable countries by deciding not to recommend vaccination for 12-15-year-olds. At a time when critical but reasoned debate is needed, Safer to Wait and similar campaigns based on pseudoscience are pouring fuel on the anti-vaxxer fire.  

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