If you had opened certain newspapers over the past year, you would have read the following. In spring, you’d have been told the virus was fizzling out. You might have been treated to the views of epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta, who claimed: “The epidemic has largely come and is on its way out in this country.” This wasn’t due to the lockdown, she argued, but “the build-up of immunity”, which government advisers were apparently underestimating.
By the summer, you would have read that it was all over. In June, Toby Young, editor of the Lockdown Sceptics website predicted: “There will be no ‘second spike’ – not now, and not in the autumn either. The virus has melted into thin air. It’s time to get back to normal.” Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson wrote: “The terrible Coronabeast will be gone from these isles by September.”
By July, the sceptical narrative had changed. According to Ross Clark in the Daily Mail, there was nothing to fear. Boris Johnson’s warning of a possible “second wave” was an unjustified “emotive” use of language. Rising cases in countries such as Spain were “little more than a statistical illusion” due to increased testing.
Globally, countries taking the toughest measures were getting great results. Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Japan and Taiwan all saw case rates at about a 20th of the EU average. The Covid sceptics trashed their approach as “sheer panic”. Instead, libertarian Sweden was all the rage. Never mind that its death rate was 10 times that of its neighbours. They would have no second wave because they had wisely built up “herd immunity”. In fact, there was a brutal second wave; Finland and Norway offered emergency medical assistance as Stockholm’s hospitals overflowed. Even the king slammed the failed strategy.
As infections built up again in the autumn, the story changed once more. Though it looked like cases were rising, it was a “casedemic” brought on by faulty tests. “At least 91% of ‘Covid cases’ are FALSE POSITIVES,” thundered Talk Radio host Julia Hartley-Brewer in September. “There is no evidence of a second wave.”
By autumn, there were more people in hospital with Covid but several papers ran pieces saying our hospitals weren’t unusually busy in November. Some continued the pretence for an absurdly long time. On 29 December, Pearson wrote: “ICU occupancy is 78% today. Remarkably low for this time of year” and that “winter 2020 is the lowest hospital bed occupancy for 10 years. Yes, really.”
However, as the new variant exploded and television news showed ambulances queuing outside hospitals that were full of people gasping for breath, the story had to change again. Yes, people were now dying but not in unusual numbers. On 4 January, Hartley-Brewer reassured us: “The virus kills. It just isn’t causing excess deaths anymore.” This was rather difficult to square with the Office for National Statistics saying 2020 saw the largest increase in deaths in England and Wales since 1940. So, others resorted to a different argument. Yes, 89,000 extra people had died but they would have died anyway. They were old or had “prior conditions”, so were already on the way out. They didn’t mention that 8,300 of them were of working age or that many “prior conditions” were non-fatal, such as asthma, diabetes, mental health or learning difficulties.
Powerful Covid-sceptics in the media have got it wrong at every stage. They fought to stop or delay every measure necessary to control the virus. They opposed masks, resisted travel restrictions, fought local lockdown tiers as well as national measures, often with conflicting arguments. Clark wrote again in October that local tiers were unfair and the PM wanted to “trash the northern economy”, but when national measures proved necessary, he complained “we are going to close down restaurants in Cornwall to try to fight an epidemic in Manchester”. In December, he said we should prioritise vaccinations in “the parts of the country which add most to the economy, London especially”.
They rubbished those who knew what they were talking about. Professors Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance were “Messrs Doom and Gloom”, “fear-mongering” and “self-serving”. That Whitty and Jonathan Van-Tam used their tiny amount of spare time to volunteer in hospitals suggests that’s not true. Now, as the death toll still rises, the same people crawl from the woodwork to demand we lift all restrictions as soon as the most vulnerable are vaccinated.
It’s great that we are leading Europe in vaccinations and lockdown has meant cases are starting to fall back. But if we drop our guard, we could still risk many lives agonisingly close to the finish line.
Because they are still dangerous, I have pointed out the mistakes of some Covid-sceptics on Twitter. They regard this as outrageous. An MP shouldn’t be getting involved in this. I “must not have any constituents who’re struggling”, says Hartley-Brewer. Young deleted all his tweets from last year and, in a joint podcast with alt-right conspiracy theorist James Delingpole,accused me of being “a wrong un”, a “fascist”, while comparing me to Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrenti Beria. (I didn’t know you could be a Nazi and a Commie.) I’ve touched a nerve, it seems. Politicians are used to accountability. The guilty people within the media are not.
The truth is, the Covid-sceptics aren’t really sceptics at all. They engage in motivated reasoning; they make stuff up and double down on disproved claims. They are powerful figures, not used to being questioned. But the truth is that they have a hell of lot to answer for.
• Neil O’Brien is Conservative MP for Harborough, a former director of Policy Exchange and a vice-chair of the Conservative party