COVID-19: The culture war battlefield is no place for pandemic policy to play out on

·3-min read

After five years covering Brexit, you'd think I'd be used to getting online abuse.

This week felt more sinister though.

I'd been covering a story about Sir Desmond Swayne, a Conservative MP who had given a series of online interviews in which he questioned the severity of the pandemic and the motives lying behind the government response.

The comments were condemned by ministers and opposition politicians alike.

But for many - including Sir Desmond - this was a classic media hatchet job. A smear campaign directed at an MP who was refusing to toe the line.

What was striking about a lot of the criticism (both the abuse and the more measured questioning) was how much it slotted into existing culture wars.

Some framed the story as an under-siege old media striking out at the new media platforms where these interviews were carried.

Black Lives Matter was brought up as well as Brexit, despite no obvious connection to the issue at hand.

After starting off as a strikingly non-partisan issue (in the UK anyway), the pandemic is now politically red hot.

So what? You may ask. Don't extraordinary times call for extraordinary scrutiny?

Shouldn't there be more contrarian interventions that challenge the received wisdom, rather than fewer?

Yes and yes.

Government taking extreme and unprecedented measures to change the way we all live our lives requires the highest level of attention.

Sir Desmond Swayne and other MPs sceptical of lockdown have played a vital and valid role in that.

Broadcasters and newspapers alike have extensively covered their arguments, alongside the analysis of academics like Carl Heneghan and Sunetra Gupta, scientists who depart from the government view.

But at such a perilous point in the pandemic, with thousands still dying every week, it's incumbent on anyone entering the debate - especially those in positions of power - to think carefully about what they say and the impact it could have.

That is why Sir Desmond's comments warranted interrogation.

Put bluntly, they went beyond reasoned factual analysis and strayed into the realms of unfounded insinuation.

There were suggestions of nefarious motives behind the COVID restrictions - hidden agendas, manipulated data and social control, as the former minister put it.

There is no hard evidence to back up any of this.

Claims were made that the UK was now a police state and a totalitarian country, with little acknowledgement of the utterly abnormal world we are all living in.

Existing debunked theories were also advanced; such as suggestions that COVID-19 deaths rates were comparable to a "bad flu season" or that hospitals were not as busy as the NHS was making out.

Then consider the dangerous flames of misinformation Sir Desmond was potentially fanning.

His first interview was with Save Our Rights UK, a group that claims the COVID vaccine may be harmful. There is no evidence to back this up.

His second was with Del Bigtree, an anti-vaccine activist, who tweeted last month that the COVID jab could be the "greatest scientific blunder in the history of mankind". Given any remotely reasonable reading, this is not true.

Yes, Sir Desmond did not speak about vaccines in the interviews.

But references to sinister shady motives within the state, made by a former minister and ex-Number 10 aide, are cat nip to the conspiracy theorists and malicious actors that populate these online spaces.

They provide ammunition to those who are trying to tear down public health policy not on the basis of facts, but on the basis of fury.

Sir Desmond Swayne is a fiercely independent voice in Westminster, cut from a non-tribal cloth rarely seen in modern politics.

But old fashioned eccentricity and an unapologetic lust for liberty is no defence when lives are at risk.

The battlefield of the culture war is no place for pandemic policy to play out on.