Spiked-Online and Covid

John Gillott

In a recent article, Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked-Online, mounted a defence of the publication’s record on Covid, ‘We Must Never Surrender to the New Normal’. Spiked has, he argued, “been smeared and demonised”; branded deniers.

(5 February 2021)

The general context for this piece is the push back on Covid and Lockdown sceptics by mainstream scientists, media and politicians, such as Conservative MP Neil O’Brien. O’Neill is likely also shaken by criticism from old allies of Spiked, most of all GP and medical writer Michael Fitzpatrick, who mentions Spiked in a wide-ranging article ‘Why I Became Sceptical of the Lockdown Sceptics’

Fitzpatrick, a regular since its foundation, is, it seems, no longer welcome on Spiked, for simply quoting some of the wilder allegations about the Government’s agenda made in pieces published there.

Over the course of the pandemic, Spiked has interviewed a number of prominent sceptics, but few or no mainstream scientific voices. Examples of sceptics include John Lee, Knut Wittkowski, Ivor Cummins and Clare Craig; all, to put it politely, maverick voices. Spiked has also published articles by sceptics of one kind or another, including one by Lee in 2021, which continued to raise questions about the accuracy of PCR testing for Covid long after the issue had been settled to most people’s satisfaction.

In His Own Words

While the pattern of who is and isn’t interviewed and published does tell us something, as does the social media activity of prominent Spiked writers, in this article I take the more specific approach of examining some of the statements made by O’Neill himself over the past year. As editor of Spiked we must presume that these represent Spiked’s views if anything or anyone does. The following is just a small selection, in chronological order, with brief commentary.

“One of the key things these people admire about the lockdown is that it has broken the public… in the fear and defeatism being expressed by the decommissioned public in relation to Covid-19, these people glimpse the pacified, grateful public in receipt of state largesse that has for a long time fuelled their political fantasies and political activity… the powers-that-be cannot now be shocked that the broken, over-policed public feels trepidation about returning to work, production and life.”

(1 May 2020)

COMMENT: In his recent ‘We Must Never Surrender to the New Normal’, O’Neill argued that “the social solidarity of the first lockdown has been usurped by a concerted emphasis on the necessity of atomisation”. However, looking back at what he wrote at the time of the first lockdown (immediately above), it seems that O’Neill didn’t see it that way then. Rather, his emphasis was on the oppressive, alien, character of lockdown. Little more than a month after the first lockdown started, the public were, in his view, ‘broken’. As we will see, this is a point he was soon to return to.

“The Covid threat is not the apocalypse we were warned about. Its death rate is low. Its impact on younger people is negligible. Just 0.75 per cent of deaths in the UK have been among under-40s, and the majority of those were people with underlying health conditions. And yet most under-40s — fit, healthy workers — remain locked at home, denied the right to work and play and keep society going. The horror stories that were spread about Covid-19 by government officials and media fearmongers have been exposed as inaccurate, and in some cases hysterical.”

(8 May 2020)

COMMENT: The projections were not exposed as inaccurate. Indeed, it is striking how accurate the early projections made Neil Ferguson’s team at Imperial College and other groups elsewhere turned out to be. Very simply, there were two aspects to their calculations: how deadly is it to those infected, and how many were likely to catch it? Imperial predicted an Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) of just under 1% in the UK, and that most people would catch Covid in an un-mitigated scenario, because it is highly infectious (significantly more so than flu, for example). This is where the projection of 500,000 deaths came from (0.01 x 50,000,000 = 500,000). Neither Imperial nor anyone else expected this to happen — because they expected individuals and society to take mitigating measures. The prediction of an IFR close to 1% turned out to be approximately correct, as did, roughly speaking, the effect of mitigations. Indeed, it was the very measures O’Neill disliked that meant deaths were, as he saw it, ‘low’ (though the death rate, ie IFR, wasn’t). The link below is to the full report by Ferguson’s team in March 2020, in which information on IFR predictions and the likely or possible effects of different mitigations are summarised in the tables. The projections for IFR are remarkably close to the most recent assessment of what happened by the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit (29 January 2021), which calculates an average IFR of 0.8% over the whole pandemic.

“And now, after all that, after pumping out 24-hour rolling doom for weeks on end, they have the gall to wonder why so many people have been too scared to visit a hospital during the pandemic. And why there has been a huge number of excess deaths from treatable ailments other than Covid-19.”

(15 May 2020)

COMMENT: Like other Covid and Lockdown sceptics, O’Neill found it very easy to convince himself that many people had died of things other than Covid; that Covid was not therefore as deadly as the mainstream believed and that the reaction to Covid was causing significant harm. In reality there was no reason to believe this was true when he wrote it, and informed analysis not long after exposed these claims as unfounded. Excess deaths above and beyond the combination of normal levels and known Covid deaths were found to be highly likely not due to the factors O’Neill suggested, but due to limited testing capability at the time and incomplete recording of causes deaths in a fast moving situation. In other words, the vast majority of these excess deaths were un-diagnosed Covid deaths, not, as O’Neill claimed, ‘deaths from treatable ailments other than Covid-19’. The following links provide an expert analysis in June 2020 by Nick Stripe of the Office for National Statistics, and a more recent confirmation of and elaboration on this analysis:

“Your risk of dying from Covid-19 if you are under 40 is infinitesimally small. Death from Covid is also very unlikely if you are under 60. If Matt Hancock were to say more of this kind of thing at the daily news briefings, he’d irritate the hell out of those in the media who feast on gloom, but he would perk up a nation that has been battered by fear and atomised by lockdown. That’s the weird thing: that the lockdown continues. Even in London. Even in the capital that has almost completely shaken off coronavirus… London is safe. Londoners’ likelihood of catching the virus right now is really small. It’s time to return to work and play and normality. We can’t hide from a virus forever. To tackle a disease by killing a city is deranged. London must now come back to life in all its bustling, mettlesome glory.”

(21 May 2020)

COMMENT: Less than two months after the start of the Lockdown, O’Neill doubled down on his claims about the public. No hint of the solidarity and community effort he mentioned in his most recent 2021 article, just a ‘battered’ and ‘atomised’ mass. On the numbers: every informed person knew the age breakdown very early on. What was O’Neill’s point here? That older people don’t count? This has never been adequately discussed by sceptics, or never faced up to, point blank. Perhaps most importantly, in this article we see a striking failure to understand the dynamics and seriousness of the virus, a failure with significant consequences as Spring turned into Summer. Contrary to O’Neill’s claim, London hadn’t ‘shaken off’ coronavirus; lockdown had suppressed it. Returning to normality would have led to rapid exponential growth straight away.

5. “To obsess over a virus that was not even in the Top 20 causes of death in England in August is bad for our health.”

(22 September 2020)

COMMENT: ‘Where’s the second wave’, asked sceptics on Twitter, over and over. ‘It’s over’, they shouted. Mainstream virologists and epidemiologists despaired — they knew that relatively few people in the UK had had the disease; that if and when restrictions were relaxed it would return. It was still the ‘wolf at the door’. That cases were relatively low was beside the point: it is in the nature of exponential growth that cases rise quickly given sufficient rate of transmission, and Covid remained a highly transmissible disease. O’Neill wasn’t the only one to fail to understand where we stood as Summer turned to Autumn, but fail he did.

Conclusion

O’Neill wants us to believe that he and Spiked-Online always took Covid very seriously, that they “have been smeared and demonised”, told they don’t “understand the seriousness of Covid-19”, that on the contrary they believed Covid “is real — it is a real and pressing crisis.”

This brief examination of Spiked’s record suggests that he protests too much. It is clear, not simply in their choice of interviewees or the many articles not considered here, but in the words of O’Neill himself, that Spiked under-estimated the seriousness of Covid, leapt at (incorrect) interpretations of mortality patterns that played down its impact, failed to understand the dynamics of Covid’s spread, and belittled the communal spirit and effort made by the population in response to what is widely recognised to be a once in a generation threat.

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Addendum: More bad judgement

On the positive side, my critique (above) of the coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic by Spiked-Online has elicited a response from its editor, Brendan O’Neill (see ‘More bad faith’ below). On the negative side, his response is more of an outpouring of rage than a serious argument. He claims that my piece is ‘a classic of the bad faith genre. It contains actual lies, and wilful distortions’:

In my piece I made sure to provide links to every quote I used so that the reader could verify and follow up on any points of interest. Accordingly, there is little point repeating myself here on every issue. However, to set the record straight, reinforce my original analysis, and illustrate how these issues should be approached, let’s deal with the accusation of lying and examine O’Neill’s response on one issue in a little detail — that of the excess deaths we have seen during the pandemic.

What lie?

O’Neill says I told a ‘straightforward lie’. This is nonsense. The ‘lie’ O’Neill accuses me of is this: ‘He says I never talked about social solidarity during the first lockdown.’ Quite simply I never said any such thing. I said that ‘looking back at what he wrote at the time of the first lockdown (immediately above), it seems that O’Neill didn’t see it that way then.’ The words ‘immediately above’ and ‘then’ pointed the reader to O’Neill’s article of 1st May 2020, which was cited above (with a link for readers). It was in this article that he wrote, more than once, that the public was ‘broken’. I never referred at all to what he might or might not have ‘talked about’ at earlier stages of the lockdown. The point I was making was that by 1st May 2020 (little more than a month into the first lockdown) he had given up on the people; he regarded them as ‘broken’, and yet in his article of 5th February 2021 (‘We Must Never Surrender to the New Normal’, also cited and linked in my article) he highlighted ‘the social solidarity of the first lockdown’.

I will not stoop to returning the claim of ‘liar’. Clearly, O’Neill was overwrought when he wrote his piece, to the point that he could not follow the words ‘immediately above’ (only four lines above). But he must learn to take criticism and respond appropriately. Moreover, it is one thing to take liberties with me, and quite another to bring the same sort of sloppiness into his use of scientific sources.

Covid and non-Covid Deaths

In his article ‘Fear Kills’ (15 May 2020), O’Neill stated: “And now, after all that, after pumping out 24-hour rolling doom for weeks on end, they have the gall to wonder why so many people have been too scared to visit a hospital during the pandemic. And why there has been a huge number of excess deaths from treatable ailments other than Covid-19.”

My comment on this was: there is ‘no reason to believe this was true when he wrote it, and informed analysis not long after exposed these claims as unfounded.’ This is O’Neill’s reply, in ‘More bad faith’:

The piece of mine that Gillott cites references the British Medical Journal, which in May argued that the ‘staggering number’ of deaths we had seen in the community in recent months could not be explained by Covid alone. It also quoted the Chief Medical Officer of Scotland, who had expressed concerns that there may have been a rise in non-Covid deaths because people were too fearful to visit a hospital. As late as mid-June, experts at Imperial College were saying that around 9,000 excess non-Covid deaths had occurred during the first three months of the pandemic. Gillott criticises spiked for not referring to the work of mainstream scientists, and yet calls us ‘Covid sceptics’ when we do. Are the British Medical Journal and Imperial College also ‘Covid sceptics’ for raising the possibility that people had died as a result of the measures introduced to tackle the pandemic?”

Was I being unreasonable? Does O’Neill have a point? No, and here’s why. O’Neill misunderstood his sources, and being more definitive than them, drifted into error. He made three claims that his sources either did not make, or made more hesitantly. O’Neill asserted that people died because they were fearful of attending hospital; that ‘a huge number’ were the result of causes other than Covid; and that these were preventable deaths. Recall his claim: “And now, after all that, after pumping out 24-hour rolling doom for weeks on end, they have the gall to wonder why so many people have been too scared to visit a hospital during the pandemic. And why there has been a huge number of excess deaths from treatable ailments other than Covid-19.”

O’Neill’s sources are a report in the British Medical Journal in May and a study by Imperial College in June (the latter published after he wrote his piece). It should be noted that the piece in the BMJ is a report on a press briefing, quoting statistician David Spiegelhalter and epidemiologist David Leon. It is not a scholarly article. Nor are the people quoted quite the most relevant experts (see the end of this piece for what a relevant expert, Stuart McDonald, an actuary, said around the same time). Nevertheless, let’s see if those present said the same as O’Neill:

“While Spiegelhalter acknowledged that some of these “excess deaths” might be the result of underdiagnosis, “the huge number of unexplained extra deaths in homes and care homes is extraordinary. When we look back . . . this rise in non-covid extra deaths outside the hospital is something I hope will be given really severe attention.” He added that many of these deaths would be among people “who may well have lived longer if they had managed to get to hospital.” David Leon, professor of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, agreed. “Some of these deaths may not have occurred if people had got to hospital,” he said. “How many is unclear. This issue needs urgent attention, and steps taken to ensure that those who would benefit from hospital treatment and care for other conditions can get it.”

Firstly, we need to be clear about terms: when Spiegelhalter referred to ‘non-Covid’ deaths, he was not making a definitive statement about the cause of death, but including cases in which Covid was not recorded as a cause of death on the death certificate. Secondly, it is important to note that neither Spiegelhalter nor Leon was claiming definitively that they knew the true causes of these deaths. They were calling for further investigation, both into the causes of these deaths and whether they might have been prevented by hospital care. Thirdly, they did not suggest that fear of attending hospital was a significant contributory factor to excess deaths.

The June Imperial College report was also cautious and recommended further research:

“Excess non-COVID-19 deaths could be due to non-reporting of COVID-19 on the death certificate or an increase in mortality for non-COVID-19 conditions. Severely ill patients may have been unable to access life-saving emergency treatment because of constraints in healthcare provision, or because they avoided seeking care due to concern over hospital-acquired infection, or to avoid burdening healthcare providers. Further research into reasons for excess non-COVID-19 deaths is warranted.”

As can be seen from this quote, the Imperial report includes similar qualifications to those expressed by Spiegelhalter and Leon, only more so. This is partly because it is a scholarly report rather than a press briefing. Another factor is that, by June, as outlined in my original piece, the Office for National Statistics had come out strongly in favour of the first possibility — that the ‘non-reporting of COVID-19 on the death certificate’ was the major factor. In stating that the report argued that “around 9,000 excess non-Covid deaths had occurred during the first three months of the pandemic”, once again O’Neill evidently misunderstood the authors’ meaning of the term ‘non-Covid’. For them this meant that Covid was not recorded as a cause of death; it was not a definitive statement about the cause of death. The Imperial study certainly offers nothing to validate O’Neill’s claim that “there has been a huge number of excess deaths from treatable ailments other than Covid-19”.

Conclusion

In a fast moving area of science different authorities will offer different interpretations. It is up to readers (whether scientists or journalists) to make their own judgements. If journalists, or scientists, get things wrong, the important thing is that they correct their failings, rather than clinging to them. O’Neill has chosen particular sources that appeared to validate his view that there was a ‘huge’ number of excess deaths from causes other than Covid. But he misunderstood the sources he quoted and turned some experts’ qualified statements into categorical ones.

Journalists can learn much from expert sources, provided they read them carefully and critically, and think clearly about who the most relevant experts are in each situation. It should not be surprising that the most relevant experts on the topic of excess deaths were and are actuaries. Stuart McDonald, for example, has proved to be an invaluable guide throughout the pandemic. For McDonald, it was always clear that the majority of unattributed excess deaths last Spring were not due to fear, as O’Neill claimed, but due to Covid. Writing before the ONS published their authoritative report, he said this:

If there is one lesson to draw from all this, aside from that O’Neill needs to learn how to conduct debate, it is that he and others would do well to pay attention to people like McDonald, who have relevant expertise and a record of sound judgements.

Author of Bioscience, Governance and Politics (Palgrave). Co-Author Science and the Retreat from Reason (Merlin/Monthly Review).