DECLASSIFIED UK

Coronavirus fake news: How the British government misled the public for weeks

By Phil Miller 30 March 2020
Caption
Boris Johnson chaired a Covid-19 meeting from self isolation after testing positive for coronavirus. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Andrew Parsons/Downing Street handout)

Despite concerns over coronavirus fake news emanating from the Kremlin, it has been British government ministers and senior scientists who have repeatedly downplayed the severity of Covid-19 in the country’s parliament and in the media.

The UK authorities told the public at least eight times from January to March that coronavirus posed a “very low” or “low” risk, research by Declassified UK has found.

Cabinet ministers have also assured the public on at least 16 occasions that the UK health service was “well prepared” to cope with coronavirus — even as it has become clear that adequate protective equipment for health workers, as well as ventilators for those being treated, are lacking.

The British government appeared to initially frame coronavirus as a foreign policy and aid issue, claiming the UK itself was a “world leader” in public health, with the “expertise” to help less advanced countries.

Meanwhile, British officials have stressed the need to “combat the spread of coronavirus misinformation in the UK”. Last week the UK Cabinet Office announced it had set up an “automated ‘chatbot’ service” on Whatsapp to “allow the British public to get answers to the most common questions about coronavirus direct from government.”

Professor Yvonne Doyle from Public Health England said the scheme would ensure that the British public was “not misled by any of the false information circulating”. The move followed claims by armed forces minister James Heappey that Russia was engaged in its “long established pattern” of taking advantage of moments of crisis to spread disinformation about coronavirus.

But far more damaging than alleged Russian disinformation were the statements made by British ministers themselves.

January 2020: Misinforming Britain

On 20 January Public Health England’s Dr Nick Phin said in a press release that the risk to the UK population from coronavirus was “very low”. Two days later, on 22 January, as China’s health ministry warned there had been “person-to-person transmission” of the new virus, Britain’s Department of Health issued its first press release on Covid-19, reassuring the public that the “risk to the UK population has been assessed as low”.

Public Health England struck a similar tone, claiming confidently: “UK public health measures are world-leading and the NHS [National Health Service] is well prepared to manage and treat new diseases.” It added proudly that Britain had already “developed a diagnostic test, making the UK one of the first countries outside China to have a prototype specific laboratory test for this new disease”.

The next day, the Chinese city of Wuhan, which was the epicentre of the outbreak, went into lockdown. Then, on 24 January, Chinese doctors published an article in English in the respected British medical journal The Lancet.

They warned the world that the number of deaths in Wuhan was “rising quickly” amid concern that coronavirus “could have acquired the ability for efficient human transmission”. They highlighted the pressures this would put on hospitals, noting: “A third of patients were admitted to intensive care units.”

That same day, Whitehall’s Cobra committee, which is convened during emergency situations, met to discuss the situation in Wuhan. Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Chris Whitty continued to assure the public in a press release, “the risk to the UK public remains low”. He added: “We have tried and tested measures in place to respond. The UK is well prepared for these types of incidents, with excellent readiness against infectious diseases.”

Chris Whitty (L) and Matt Hancock (R) head for a COBRA meeting. Both men have tested positive for coronavirus. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Andy Rain)

The positive tone continued on 27 January, when Health Secretary Matt Hancock told parliament there were no confirmed coronavirus cases in the UK and that the risk to the UK population was “low”.

Two days, later, on 29 January, the government again informed parliament it assessed the risk as “low”. The following day, it repeated this claim.

However, also on 30 January, the government changed its risk assessment “from low to moderate”. Should coronavirus cases arise in the UK, Hancock said, “we are well prepared and well equipped to deal with them”. Anyone who developed symptoms was told to inform the NHS and public health officials were carefully tracing people who had arrived in the UK from Wuhan.

Hancock claimed the UK had capacity to scale up testing “to deal with cases in this country if necessary” and insisted the NHS was “well prepared” in terms of its number of specialist hospital units, highly trained staff and equipment. He said the UK had “the highest safety standards possible for the protection of NHS staff”.

Since then, these claims by the British government and its top medical officers have been shown to be false and dangerously misleading. 

February 2020: From “very low” to “moderate” risk

Government messaging on the level of risk was not entirely consistent across government and on 7 February Public Health England repeated: “The risk to individuals remains low.” It was so confident the UK had sufficient capacity it said it was “testing samples from countries that do not have assured testing capabilities”.

The next day, international development minister Alok Sharma pledged £5 million of British aid to help the World Health Organisation (WHO) “prevent the spread of the virus in developing countries” and deploy experts to the WHO’s regional office for Africa in the Republic of Congo.

This framing of the coronavirus crisis as foreign policy or international aid problem, which was presumed to impact other parts of the world worse than the UK, continued well into mid-February.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab wrote in the Sunday Telegraph: “The UK is a world leader in tackling global health issues … Thanks in part to the centre of excellence that is the NHS, British doctors have been at the centre of the response to every major disease outbreak around the world in recent decades and coronavirus is no different.”

Dominic Raab digs a hole in Sydney to promote British pharma company AstraZeneca during Brexit trade talks as coronavirus spread on 7 February. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Rick Rycroft)

On 10 February, the government continued to put out mixed messages. On the one hand, it continued to assess the risk as “moderate”. On the other, it declared that the “transmission of novel coronavirus constitutes a serious and imminent threat to public health”.

Meanwhile, others were adamant that coronavirus could have devastating implications. On 24 February, China and the WHO held a joint press conference and told the world that, at the peak of the outbreak in Wuhan, exhausted medical staff were lacking personal protective equipment and that China’s hospitals needed to invest in more ventilators.

Dr Bruce Aylward, a senior WHO adviser, said: “Complacency is the single biggest risk. Thinking you’ve beaten this virus is the single biggest risk.”

Five days later, on 29 February, the UK’s Professor Whitty announced the first case of coronavirus infection in Britain. But it was not until 3 March that the UK government announced its official “coronavirus action plan” for Britain.

Still, Prime Minister Boris Johnson failed to convey the severity of the crisis, telling Britons they should simply “wash our hands with soap and water for the length of time it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice.”

March 2020: From “herd immunity” to lockdown

On 5 March, Johnson sowed more confusion when he said on prime time breakfast TV: “One of the theories is, that perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population without taking as many draconian measures.”

Johnson’s view was that the UK needed to “strike a balance” between that approach and taking extra precautions to stop the peak overwhelming the NHS. He assured health workers: “We will make sure that they have all preparations, all the kit that they need for us to get through it.”

The prime minister shook hands with his TV hosts and said: “I’ve been going around hospitals as you can imagine and I think I always shake hands.”

On 10 March, the government was still saying there was no rationale to postpone sporting events in Britain because of coronavirus. The Cheltenham horse racing festival went ahead that day, attended by 250,000 fans, and 10 people present were later found to have been infected by the virus.

Two days later, on 12 March, the Department for International Development (DFID) announced half a million pounds of British aid to “tackle global spread of coronavirus ‘fake news’”. Social media vloggers and bloggers in the Philippines, Bangladesh and Indonesia were to be engaged in this campaign against “conspiracy theories” such as claims that “drinking bleach” cured coronavirus.

International Development Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan said: “Misinformation harms us all. By tackling it at source we will help stop the spread of fake news – and coronavirus – worldwide, including within the UK.” Her department was monitoring the spread of disinformation as far away as Tanzania.

Meanwhile, closer to home, Johnson announced on 12 March that testing of people with mild symptoms would stop, contrary to WHO advice. The next day his chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme the government’s aim was to “build up some kind of herd immunity”.

Patrick Vallance (L) arrives at the Cabinet Office. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Andy Rain)

Last gasp”

Vallance’s comment on 13 March caused panic to spread throughout the country, as the estimated 1% mortality rate from the virus would result in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

After weeks of saying the government was “well-prepared”, Hancock told a TV programme on 15 March: “We start with around 5,000 ventilators, we think we need many times more than that.” The following day Hancock even called on ventilator manufacturers in a tweet to contact the government — underlining its lack of preparation. 

When Johnson chaired a conference call with ventilator manufacturers, he reportedly joked that it was “Operation Last Gasp”.

On the ground, supermarkets experienced a surge in demand for toilet roll, pasta and other basic goods, as the public appeared to lose trust in the government’s command of the situation. Large scale public gatherings and sporting events continued to go ahead as normal.

On 16 March Johnson was still claiming that “risks of transmission of the disease at mass gatherings such as sporting events are relatively low”.

Meanwhile, a shift took place towards more traditional threats. On 18 March, Reuters said it had seen an EU document warning that Russian media had deployed a “significant disinformation campaign” about Covid-19 to “aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries … in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies”.

These conspiracies were said to consist of crude hoaxes that the virus was spread by migrants or was a biological weapon created by China, Britain or the US. Reuters’ revelation was picked up across the UK media spectrum, from the Guardian to the Telegraph, with the latter proclaiming: “Coronavirus conspiracies are a gift to Russia’s disinformation machine”.

It chimed with existing concerns about the need to “counter Russian disinformation”, to which the UK had already pledged to spend £100 million over five years. The same day Reuters broke its story, several MPs raised similar concerns in the House of Commons, including Damian Collins, who has chaired a parliamentary “sub-committee on disinformation” and extensively probed allegations of Russia interference in UK elections.

Collins asked the government how many cases of coronavirus disinformation the government had come across, what action it had taken and whether it would publish examples of the fake news. In response, media minister Caroline Dinenage said, “It would not be appropriate to provide a running commentary”, and refused to give any examples.

This was despite her simultaneously telling parliament the government had the “most comprehensive picture possible about the extent, scope and impact of disinformation and misinformation on the Covid-19 crisis.”

A day after concerns were raised in parliament about foreign disinformation, on 19 March, the British government downgraded its risk assessment of Covid-19, stating it was “no longer considered to be a high consequence infectious disease in the UK”.

People panic buy toilet paper in London on 19 March 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Facundo Arrizabalaga)

“A national scandal”

It was not until 23 March that Johnson finally announced some form of lockdown. By then, the UK death toll had exceeded 300.

The government continued to express alarm at foreign disinformation operations and on 25 March the Cabinet Office set up a WhatsApp channel to “combat the spread of coronavirus misinformation in the UK”.

While the Russian state can use its media outlets such as RT to disseminate this material, the UK broadcast regulator Ofcom told Declassified it had “not received any complaints to that effect about RT” between 18 and 25 March — the time of the Reuters report and the Cabinet Office setting up the WhatsApp channel.

By that stage, a major London hospital had seen its intensive care unit overwhelmed and its nurses were pictured wearing clinical waste bags on their heads instead of the protective visors recommended by the WHO.

On 27 March, with the UK death toll set to break the 600 barrier, The Lancet editor Richard Horton lamented how the NHS “has been wholly unprepared for this pandemic” and called it a “national scandal” the gravity of which “has yet to be understood”. He slammed the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser for not echoing the warnings from China early enough or loud enough in late January.

Horton said: “They had a duty to immediately put the NHS and British public on high alert. February should have been used to expand coronavirus testing capacity, ensure the distribution of WHO-approved PPE [personal protective equipment] and establish training programmes and guidelines to protect NHS staff.

“They didn’t take any of those actions. The result has been chaos and panic across the NHS. Patients will die unnecessarily. NHS staff will die unnecessarily.”

More than a thousand members of the British public, including three NHS doctors, have so far died from coronavirus. Stephen Powis, the medical director of NHS England, said on Saturday: “If we can keep deaths below 20,000 we will have done very well in this epidemic.” DM

Phil Miller is a staff reporter for Declassified UK, an investigative journalism organisation focusing on Britain’s foreign, military and intelligence policies. Follow @DeclassifiedUK and @pmillerinfo for updates.

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