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My advice to scientists questioning the Covid consensus? More people are on your side than you realise

Covid poster
Covid poster

The label “lockdown sceptic” was once a badge of shame used to denounce anyone who questioned punitive Covid restrictions as a heartless granny killer.

What a difference four years makes.

Now the majority of scientists believe that more attention should have been paid to the true cost of lockdowns, with only half thinking the action was always justified.

Perhaps this is the benefit of hindsight talking. But what is clear is that few were brave enough to put their heads above the parapet at the time for fear of damaging their careers.

It’s not how science should work and we need more gumption from our best minds. But it is a striking indication of how thoughtful reflection has been replaced by activism and dogma in the very institutions that should be the champions of free speech

Universities – which have lurched alarmingly to the Left in the last few decades – are now so mired in groupthink that even the most liberal academics struggle to be heard inside such a noisy echo chamber.

Politically driven

Covid was a good example. Much of the pro-lockdown narrative was controlled by a small group of scientists who effectively organised themselves into a politically driven movement that sought to influence policy.

Independent Sage, a group of largely Left-wing academics which regularly called for ongoing restrictions, was put together with help from The Citizens, a group founded by Carole Cadwalladr, a Guardian and Observer journalist and activist.

The group, which was allowed an unconscionable amount of airtime by the BBC and Sky News, confused the public, with many people believing they were hearing from real Sage scientists.

All usual decision-making processes went out of the window, replaced by emotional hyperbole that ran roughshod over cost-benefit calculations set in place to make sure taxpayers’ money was being well spent on health interventions.

As early as 2020, Prof Carl Heneghan, of Oxford University, warned that lockdown would bankrupt the country and leave a catastrophic health legacy.

He roughly estimates that, based on a £400 billion UK Covid spend, more than 13 million lives would have needed to be saved by measures to justify the eye-watering costs.

Prof Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College, predicted 500,000 deaths could occur but only if politicians took no action at all, and that figure was thought highly unlikely by many scientists.

“In pandemics, decision-making is too often made from behind a computer and is overly influenced by modelling,” said Prof Heneghan.

“The Coronavirus Act placed power into a few panicked individuals. They were aided and abetted by scientists and their advisers, who were too quick to recommend harsher restrictions with no evidence to inform their actions.”

Whether this will make a difference in future remains to be seen. Faced with a similar threat, many might choose the path of least resistance.

Scale of fallout

Jason Oke, a senior statistician at Oxford University told me: “Had you taken this survey in the middle of 2020 I think you would have seen different responses. I would hypothesise that many did not anticipate the scale of the fallout from the lockdown.”

But the lack of willingness to speak up about “hot-potato” issues is also apparent in the polling results that deal with the origins of Covid.

A cabal of vocal scientists on social media continues to assert that a consensus has been reached on the issue with academia now thoroughly behind a zoonotic origin. Many journalists parrot this view without considering whether it is accurate.

Our polling results show a much more nuanced picture with more than a quarter believing coronavirus leaked from a lab in China. Only 37 per cent of scientists are convinced that a lab leak did not happen, with nearly the same amount not having a view one way or another.

Put another way, of people who had an opinion, 59 per cent is “Team Zoonosis”, while 41 per cent are “Team Lab Leak”. Hardly the overwhelming consensus we’re led to believe.

The same tale of division appears when considering gain-of-function experiments – work that increases the virulence of viruses and bacteria. Many virologists working in the field will tell you that such science is crucial and concerns about escapee pathogens are overblown.

Our results show that while one third of scientists do believe such work is crucial for preventing a dangerous zoonotic outbreak, the same number believe it could spark a future pandemic.

This difference of opinion is healthy but it is largely happening behind the scenes while the public is being led to believe that a general agreement has been reached on the subject.

It is a similar picture with the row over sex and gender. Of those who expressed an opinion, almost two thirds said sex was binary, even though influential academics such as Prof Alice Roberts will have you believe such thoughts are “essentialism” and “bad science”.

It is, of course, concerning that almost a third don’t, but I would hazard a guess most of those people do not work in the biological sciences.

Overall this survey has given me some cause for hope. My advice to scientists? Be brave, stand up. There are more people on your side than you realise.