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The BBC has been hit with a complaint to Ofcom after standing by a claim that Covid is now less harmful than the flu – a statement that has been hotly contested by several health campaigners and experts.
On April 4, during a segment on BBC Look East about the end of mask requirements in hospitals, virologist Dr Chris Smith said: “The risk and the threat posed by Coronavirus infection now in a highly vaccinated population is lower than the risk from something like the flu.”
Covid campaigners say that these claims are often used to justify withdrawing protections for health workers and others at risk (there is no suggestion Dr Smith intended this).
It led Dr Jonathan Fluxman, Covid lead at Doctors in Unite, to strongly refute the claims – and complain directly to the BBC. After three exchanges, the BBC stood by the segment on the basis that vaccination rates were higher for Covid than for the flu.
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But Dr Fluxman – a witness in the official ongoing Covid inquiry – argues that this completely ignores Long Covid, a condition which affects some 1.3 million Brits, and which has left many with devastating fatigue, breathing issues and weakened immune systems.
The BBC leaned heavily on infection fatality rates to defend its position. Yet when probed by Dr Jonathan Fluxman, the broadcaster conceded that transmission rates and the severity of COVID-19 are indeed greater than the flu.
Covid campaigners also note that the Covid vaccine is about half as effective as the flu vaccine – meaning vaccination numbers can’t easily be compared in terms of risk.
Coupled with concerns over waning immunity and the emergence of new, possibly resistant, variants, there are real causes for concern, the Covid expert notes.
Dr Fluxman and a number of others doctors have escalated their complaint to Ofcom. He wrote: “This issue is pivotal. We frequently hear the claim that COVID is akin to the flu or a common cold. It’s imperative that the BBC acknowledges that this isn’t supported by scientific evidence and rectifies this oversight.”
It follows the launch of the “Campaign for Safe Healthcare” which is demanding that health workers are protected with appropriate PPE after mask wearing was effectively ended in hospital settings earlier this year.
Dr Fluxman told Byline Times the BBC used the claim of Covid being “less of a risk than Covid or the flu” to “justify removal of protections, and to normalise the pandemic.”
“There are a small number of [people] who believe that Covid is no big deal anymore. That’s wrong…Covid is not seasonal. There are a number of waves every year. In 2022, we had five waves of Omicron. The next wave here has already begun. People are exposed to infection several times a year, unlike the flu.
“So there are increasing reports of people being reinfected, and reinfected again. It looks like the general population will be infected two or three times a year. Who knows what the latest variant will do? It is very likely to be more invasive and enter the cells more easily, getting around previous immunity.
“Each infection carries risk: the risk of Long Covid is 10% with each infection. So the second infection could see a 20% risk. Each time, there is potentially damage to the immune system, brain, nervous system and so on. Flu does a little bit of that to a few people – but Covid is unique in its scale on this front.”
He added that “anyone who restricts analysis to deaths and hospitalisations is being deliberately misleading…The big thing going forward is Long Covid, organ damage and risk of reinfections. If you don’t talk about Long Covid you are missing most of this.”
And he claimed there is a “wider process” of “normalisation of the pandemic”. “Those of us working on Covid have been appalled by each abandonment of basic infection control and protocols. Now there are really no mitigations in place at all.”
Monitoring of Covid’s spread and extent has largely disappeared – the Office for National Statistics’ national survey on Covid rates ended, while wastewater surveillance to monitor Covid rates by area is no longer being done in Wales (and hasn’t been publicly reported in England at all).
A spokesperson for the BBC said: “The [Executive Complaints Unit] accepted that the factors mentioned by the complainant would be relevant to a comprehensive assessment of the relative risks posed by Covid and flu.
“In the context of the hospitals’ decision about mask-wearing, however, the focus was on the transmission of the diseases rather than on the possible consequences of contracting them, and Dr Smith’s comments appeared to be duly accurate in that respect.”
Ofcom does not typically respond directly to individual complaints but may investigate the matter nonetheless.
Complaint to Ofcom about BBC
I have now had a response from the BBC ECU. They concede that severity of symptoms in Covid infected patients is greater, there are ongoing risks of repeated reinfection for Covid and large numbers of people suffer Long Covid. The stage 1b response conceded that “It is true that transmission rates for COVID-19 are higher than flu, severity of illness is worse, (and) complications are more varied”. I pointed out several other measures which were much worse for Covid-19 than for flu: much higher prevalence, greater frequency of infections, greater hospitalisation rates and greater numbers of deaths. These points were either not addressed or unsatisfactorily answered by the BBC.
The facts support only one conclusion, i.e. the risks from Coronavirus are far greater than flu on every measure.
Despite all this, the ECU says it is not willing to uphold my complaint because more people have been vaccinated against Covid-19 than against flu. This does not equate to greater protection however. As I said in my complaint the protection rate for flu vaccine is around double that for Coronavirus, vaccine-induced immunity for Covid wanes rapidly due to declining antibody levels and new variants display “immune escape”. The Covid vaccine schedule is also now greatly restricted, so only a small proportion of the population will receive boosters going forward.
The BBC’s vaccination argument therefore does not withstand scrutiny.
“The ECU also state they “do not believe Dr Smith was intending to minimise the dangers of contracting Covid… and do not believe his observation was misleading”. Dr Smith’s intentions are not relevant, what matters is what he said. “
“His statement was factually incorrect for a host of reasons; he did minimise the dangers of Covid and this was misleading to everyone who saw the program. The public have a right to be properly informed and not be presented with misleading information by the BBC, on this critically important matter of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
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