COVID-19 Who Should You Believe?

Transcript of “Opinion Battlegrounds” Podcast By Chelgate Chairman, Terence Fane-Saunders


Welcome back to Opinion Battlegrounds. My name’s Terence Fane-Saunders , and I’m Executive Chairman of Chelgate Ltd – an international strategic PR firm specializing in Issues and Crisis Management.

Usually I’m joined for these podcasts by one or two friends and colleagues, but the challenges of this virus lockdown mean that I will be flying solo for a while, talking to you from my remote self-imposed isolation here high up in the North York Moors.

If you have joined us before, you’ll know what this is about. We look at the debates, the arguments, the battles for your opinion raging all around us. We try not to take sides. Perhaps not always successfully ! But what we are interested in are the arguments themselves. The techniques of persuasion, information, and disinformation. How are the facts stacking up? Who’s winning those arguments. How? Who’s losing. ….Why?

And my word, there are a host of nervous debates and passionate arguments swirling around us right now, aren’t there?

And perhaps the most toxic, poisonous and despicable are the arguments that have their slimy roots in the tsunami of misinformation and deliberate disinformation that has accompanied this extraordinary worldwide crisis. Welcome to the mis-infodemic.

The scale of this avalanche of fictional filth is utterly astonishing. For example, Dr Manlio DE Domenico – a statistical physicist at the Bruno Kessler Foundation in Italy, reported that, during March, on average 46,000 tweets linked to Covid-19 misinformation were published every single day. Elsewhere a woman claiming to be a nurse did a Facebook video blaming the virus on the 5 G network – and this was watched more than 100,000 times.

If you’re in the business of persuasion, there’s a lot to learn from this. At the simplest level, how, almost any argument, any rumour, any suggestion can be advanced successfully, no matter how absurd and ill-founded, if it connects with what people want to believe. And there is a whole messy spaghetti of insecurities, desires, disappointments, resentments and daydreams floating around in the human psyche which make us want, really want to believe in a world that just doesn’t exist.

So, yes, according to a 2019 Gallup poll, a third of all Americans actually believe in flying saucers.


Well, that’s a harmless enough little fantasy , I suppose. But when phone masts are being burnt by lunatic fantasists determined to believe – in absolute defiance of even the most basic scientific principles – that the 5G network is responsible for the Covid-19 virus, then , oh god, we’re in a very frightening world where no claim, no assertion, no false fact is too absurd to be taken seriously by huge numbers of people.

Right. Look. If you are one of those crazies; if you genuinely believe the 5G network is spreading the Coronavirus…..or worse, if you actually think we should be burning down phone masts, then please switch off now. There’s nothing for you here. We’re talking about real debates, rational arguments, true battles of opinion. Not unhinged, malign, nightmare propaganda.

But you know, what disturbs me more than the determined gullibility of so many, is the uncomfortable question of who has been behind these false rumours in the first place. An astonishing 40% of the 46,000 tweets a day that Prof Domenico reported came from non-human actors. Effectively from online bots. So it seems the fires of falsehood may have been fanned deliberately and professionally. One day, I hope, we may learn who by ……and why.

Although, I suppose, for the record, I should tell you that the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center – the GEC – have reported that thousands of Russian state-funded social media accounts launched a coordinated effort to spread alarm about the virus – including the conspiracy theory that the US was behind the virus. Well, makes a change from blaming the Chinese, I suppose. Though…. , it has to be said, the GEC didn’t actually offer a lot of evidence to support their report.

But we don’t need this kind of manufactured craziness to find plenty of passionate arguments raging.

And I suppose the biggest, most fundamental debate of all is whether this all justified the fuss. Well, let’s put this more carefully. There is in fact an entirely respectable body of expert opinion which argues that extreme social isolation, rigorous lockdowns and other economy-busting emergency measures were not really necessary. That, in fact, they may have done more harm than good, and could even lead to more deaths than COVID-19 itself.

In the UK, certainly, that’s not an argument which plays very well. Most of the population are taking their pandemic very seriously, throwing their weight behind the Corona-stricken Prime Minister, standing in the doorways to applaud the truly heroic efforts of the National Health Service and a host of other care workers. Mostly meticulously measuring out their social distancing. But there are voices, serious, well qualified voices questioning the strategy. So, we’ll take a look at what they are saying. And we’ll take a quick glance at Sweden, too, where the “Don’t panic, Carry On” strategy has been in sharp contrast to most of Europe.

In the British media, probably the loudest media voice opposing the Government’s Get-Tough lockdown strategy has been the dependably unpleasant and provocative Peter Hitchens railing against what he sees as this “foolish great panic”. So far, his arguments have cut very little ice with the British public, who have rallied to the Government’s cause as though the Battle of Britain were still raging overhead, and who have understandably become wholly swept up emotionally in the sacrifice and commitment of the National Health Service and so many others who have been keeping the lifeblood of this country pumping through its veins – often at risk to their own lives.

But Peter Hitchens isn’t just some coronavirus grinch. He marshals his case strongly, and backs his arguments with hard statistics and a healthy smattering of expert opinions.

You see, his argument is not really economics versus health. In his view, they are inextricably entwined. If you inflict disaster on the economy, he argues, that in itself will lead to untold suffering, and death on a massive scale – a scale which might well exceed anything directly caused by the Covid-19 pandemic itself. In fact, he also suggests, the mortality figures directly attributed to the virus may not be quite as dramatic as the bald figures suggest. He makes the important distinction between dying with the CoronaVirus, and dying of it – which other have made too.

There are really two key themes on this side of the argument. Firstly, that the nightmare scenarios of slaughter by Covid-19 have been badly over dramatised. The original talk of a quarter of a million dead if we didn’t behave ourselves has shrivelled down to around 20,000. But, the argument goes, even that figure may be making things look worse than they are.

The second, related argument is that we have done massive, disproportionate damage to the economy which will wreak a toll just as great as the Cronavirus. Perhaps greater

In fact, even Professor Neil Fergusson – who originally spooked us all with his warnings of a quarter of a million deaths has said that up to 2/3 of Covid-19 deaths would have died anyway. So, we are looking at perhaps six or seven thousand added to the annual death toll.

Peter Hitchens puts this in context by pointing out that 1,600 people die EVERY DAY in the UK. And that each year around 17,000 of us are killed by good old fashioned flu. In fact, in one recent year the number jumped to 28,330. On that basis, the Covid threat does begin to look not quite such a nightmare.

But the additional argument – and the Hitchens view does have some scientific backing – is that what he calls “the panic” is itself a killer on a huge scale. The argument here is that this level of economic and social disruption does itself have a lethal impact. Poverty is a killer. So is unemployment. So is fear. And GPs and hospitals across the country are reporting a dramatic decline in the number of people reporting symptoms or doing vital tests for other lethal conditions – from cancer to heart. And this will have devastating results. This may already be showing up in the statistics.
Now stay with me here. I want to dig into the figures a bit.

In the week ending 10h April, around 8,000 more people died in this country than would normally die in this particular week. So, frightening evidence of a raging and lethal virus, you might think.

But hang on. Only around 6,200 of those death reports mentioned Covid-19. So, it looks like there might have been an extra 1,800 deaths from some other cause. And of course, mentioning COVID-19 doesn’t necessarily mean they died OF COVID-19. They might have died with it.

But, actually, it’s more than that. Remember that up to 2/3rds of those CoronaVirus deaths would have happened anyway. So, Covid-19 may have added only a couple of thousand or so extra deaths. But something nevertheless was pushing up those extra death figures, not by two , but by eight thousand. So, something else may have been killing us. Not just the CoronaVirus. And perhaps in greater numbers than the virus itself.

A little spooky.

But , don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into some weird conspiracy theory about an invisible killer disease.

The answer may be more straightforward. And researchers at Bristol University may have that answer. They tell us that the benefit of a long-term lockdown in reducing premature deaths could be outweighed by the lost life expectancy from a significant economic dip. The tipping point, they tell us, is a 6.4 % decline in the size of the economy. 6.4%? Hmm. Well, the Office for Budget Responsibility says we could see the economy shrink by 35% by June. Hold onto your hats.

But in most countries – well, perhaps not Sweden – the consensus is strongly in favour of social distancing, lockdowns and other restrictions. Though public support may be crumbling in some parts of the United States. One recent poll shows that 74% of all British people say restrictions should remain, whatever the economic impact.

All over the world, too, we have seen public sentiment shifting in support of governments and their leadership. In France a desperately unpopular President saw public support for his handling of the crisis soaring to 55%. In Italy, as the Covid-19 horror unfolded, Guiseppe Conte saw his approval ratings soar to 71%, though that has slipped back 11 points since that high water mark. In Germany, Angela Merkel has seen an 11 point bounce to 79 % – that’s the kind of height that can give you nose bleeds. And here in the UK Boris Johnson saw an 18 point lift in his approval ratings…..though they were just beginning to slip back. Then the virus struck. Horribly. The Prime Minister’s near-death experience in intensive care may have been a grim and frightening time, but it did at least seem to restore his place in the hearts of the British public.

So, these governments all seem to be winning their reputation battles. They have the public behind them.

But here at Opinion Battlegrounds we don’t like to rush to judgement too early. Yes, in war time, and times of great public peril, the public tend to rally to the flag. But that surge of love and support can ebb away frighteningly quickly once the peril is past. Winston Churchill was the most popular British Prime Minister of all time. On the 9th May, 1945, together with the rest of the nation, he celebrated VE Day. Victory in Europe Day. Less than two months later, on the 5th of July , the British people showed their appreciation in the General Election by throwing him out of office. And remember George W Bush. After he September 11th horror, his Gallup opinion poll ratings soared to 90%. Sorry, George, it was never going to last.
In the US today, Donald Trump did see his approval ratings improve , though not so dramatically, to a peak of 49% in the period March 13-22, according to Gallup. With disapproval at only 45 %. But since then, things have looked less rosy, at the time of this podcast, with approval dropping to 43% and disapproval powering ahead to 54%.

But then, the real pain is just beginning to be felt, with numbers registering for unemployment smashing way past the historic all-time high, and some 45,000 Americans already reported dead from the virus. Remember, on 22nd January, talking of the Coronavirus threat, these were the words of Donald Trump. “We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine”. If you were a family member of one of those 45,000 virus victims, I doubt if you’d say it was just fine.

And then, there’s the press conferences. I suppose we’ve grown accustomed to President Trump’s way with the media. Well, I thought we had. But………and as you know, I try not to take sides …..but with the virus raging, the Presidential Press conferences seem to be reaching that point where the surreal begins to press at the very boundaries of normal, rational sanity.

But whilst the crises rages, it’s much too soon to be declaring winners and losers. There will be a time for judgement. A time to look back and assign praise and blame. It’s not that time yet.

But I will stick my neck out and make this forecast. I can only see things getting worse for Donald Trump. As the grim statistics take on human form. The job losses. The economic hardship. The nightmare of the mounting death toll. It’s hard to imagine that there’s any possibility of his re-election. Yes, his support among Republican voters appears to be holding up quite well. But the pain has only just begun. It’s going to get a lot worse, and his “wartime” popularity boost was really not that great. I don’t think it will be enough of a cushion.

In the UK, I think Boris Johnson may be fortunate that the next General Election is still four years away. Yes, his approval ratings may still be strong, but as Churchill found, as George W Bush found, popularity can slip away with frightening speed. As the public tire, and as the pain of the price we must all pay begins to bite, and as criticism of government failures mounts, I think there will be an almost inevitable haemorrhage in public support for the Johnson Government. But at least, they’ll have time to rebuild, if they can.

But in the early days of the virus crisis, Boris Johnson’s reputation as a great communicator was looking hard to justify. His press conference performances were woolly, woffly, weak on facts and seemingly badly prepared. His best performance was when he appeared, read out a set statement, and left. But then he was struck by the virus and for some days his life was in the balance. But then he came out of hospital – still with a difficult convalescence stretching ahead of him – He put on a jacket and tie, and faced the camera. And he delivered perhaps the best, most focused, most moving talk I have ever heard him give. So, perhaps the old communicator hasn’t lost it yet.

What of his colleagues? Well, Dominic Raab was the Prime Minister’s designated replacement. The media really don’t like Mr Raab very much, do they? Mostly their attacks focus on style, rather than substance. The way he smiles. The air of awkward, uneasy hesitancy. I think he’s actually done better than the press give him credit for, in an incredibly difficult position. But – though he’s been stand-in for the Prime Minister – I think we can all agree now – Dominic Raab will never be Prime Minister.

Health Secretary, the fiercely ambitious Matt Hancock has taken a huge amount of heat, and hasn’t buckled. His blazing television row with Piers Morgan was a bit of a collectors’ item, with both sides of course claiming victory. But, again, I don’t think Boris Johnson need be looking over his shoulder. We’ve seen Matt Hancock’s limitations. He’s decent enough. But at no point has he really seemed a man in charge of the situation. When pressed by the media, his first instinct seems always to be to offer a PR line. Never admit a shortcoming. You don’t ever feel with Matt Hancock that you are getting the real facts, the unvarnished truth.

So far, the star of the Government Front Bench appears, very clearly, to be Chancellor Rishi Sunak who, every time he appears, seems to have been winning glowing plaudits, amazingly from all sides. In the early days of the crisis, while Boris bumbled and waffled, Sunak spoke with authority, clarity and focus. Almost immediately, he was being talked of as a future Prime Minister. And that, of course, can be fatal to your career. It kind of implies ….a vacancy.

Rishi – a word to the wise…….keep looking over your shoulder!

So, yes, it may be a little early to announce winners and losers in the battle for your good opinion. But there are certainly one or two struggling. The police have not had a good war.

Not entirely their fault. The original guidelines for the lockdown were far too vague, and left ridiculous scope for interpretation. And this interpretation varied from police force to police force. Even police officer to police officer. And there’s no question that some in the police acted with over-zealous mis-judgement, causing retired Supreme Court Judge , Lord Sumption to froth at the gills, with dire, rumbling warnings of a police state. Certainly, shops being told not to sell Easter eggs, a Chief Constable threatening that supermarket trolleys might searched by police officers searching for unnecessay purchases, families being ordered indoors from their own front gardens, drones being used against thoroughly socially distanced walkers in a remote and desolate part of the Peak District – these were all obvious and crass mistakes, and in these days, the Media and Twitter made them pay. But, the reality we hear less of is the large number of police going about a very difficult job with professionalism and patience. And the police are not greatly skilled when it comes to their own PR. When the final tally is taken, and police performance assessed, I rather think the verdict may be no worse than “Mixed”.

Others may not do so well. Public Health England have taken a terrible and sustained battering for a host of alleged failures and shortcomings. But perhaps we might have expected this at a time when expert, qualified knowledge has never been so highly prized, and we are all told that we must “follow the science”. You see, Duncan Selbie, their Chief Executive boasted to the Lancet: “You can fill my Public Health credentials on a postage stamp”. Maybe a Gerald Ratner moment.

Often, when we pass judgement on decisions made, the “What if” scenario has to be based on guesswork. What if we had taken the other path? We’ll never really know.

But this time, just perhaps we will. Because, to some degree, we can see what would have happened. We have Sweden. When the rest of the world was rushing into lockdown, Sweden took the path less travelled. Bars, restaurants, schools stayed open. So did offices, although people were encouraged to work from home where possible. Sunbathers weren’t being arrested. No fines for leaving home without a good reason. Neighbours weren’t being encouraged to report on neighbours. It wasn’t that Sweden ignored the virus. They did a lot of testing and contact tracing. They encouraged sensible social distancing, up to a point. But they avoided a clamp down. They said they trusted their people to “behave like adults”

Well, at this moment, the figures aren’t looking too good for the Swedish approach. Things started well enough, but then the mortality figures started to climb. Sharply. By 23rd April Covid-19 deaths in Sweden had soared sharply to 192 per million of the population – way higher than their Scandinavian neighbours, or countries like Germany and Austria where early and vigorous lockdowns had been applied. Although, to be fair to Sweden, deaths per million in the UK are higher still. As they are in France Italy and Spain. A lot higher. And we have lockdowns.

But, it really is too soon to say who was right. You see, Sweden have chosen a different path. But not necessarily a worse one. By resisting an early lockdown, they are taking this terrible hit earlier. But Anders Tegnell, the epidemiologist who fronts the country’s daily press conferences argues that the deaths would have occurred anyway; that it’s inevitable that, eventually, the disease will sweep through a large proportion of the population, and allowing it to do so in a managed way could prevent a later surge that could cripple the health services. A stringent lockdown, of the kind we are now seeing in the UK, he argues means “you are just pushing the problem ahead of you”.

The Swedish view is that countries like the UK and Germany cannot keep the lockdown in place for ever. But whilst there is still a low level of immunity in the population, each easing of the lockdown will see another wave of deaths. So, Sweden may be taking its hit earlier – but without the other horrendous areas of damage to the economy, to life and health, to social services, that a severe lockdown can leave in its wake. He does have his critics in Sweden, though, who include scientists and medical professionals. Their main argument appears to be that a lockdown would have bought the country time; that effective treatments – not vaccines, treatments, are not far away. Delaying the pandemic onset might have brought them in reach for Sweden . We’ll see.

The UK’s approach seems to be to hope that small, incremental steps in easing the lockdown will prevent the floodgates opening, but allow the country gradually to limp back into action.

It’s much too early to start pontificating about who’s right. But today, in the UK and in Sweden there is strong public support for the very different approaches the two governments are taking.

So, neither appears to have lost the argument in the minds of their own people. But here at Opinion Battlegrounds we’ll continue to keep a close eye on the battle for your opinion.

Thank you for joining us today. Stay well. Stay safe. We look forward to you joining us again for the next edition of Opinion Battlegrounds