Please don’t tell our columnist, Neil O’Brien, but this website is Covid-sceptic. By which we mean “sceptic” in the real sense of the world – “a person inclined to question or doubt accepted opinions”.
That’s why, back in October, we urged the Government to publish assessments of the economic and healthcare costs of lockdowns and restrictions. And why, given its reluctance to publish a meaningful one, we suggested that MPs not vote for the tiering plan in December.
Using words accurately is not a bad way of getting into the debate about a role-reversal story – the quest of an MP to hold journalists to account. The one in question is none other than O’Brien himself. We make five points.
First, “Covid sceptics” is, as we imply, a term of art. It encompasses a spectrum of opinion from those who raise an eyebrow at lockdowns, to those who persistently question them, to those who oppose them, or deny the existence of Covid altogether, or claim Boris Johnson is a tyrant set on dictatorial power.
To help illustrate the point, we choose an example from near the heart of the discussion. Toby Young’s website isn’t sceptical about lockdowns; it doesn’t believe in lockdowns. There’s nothing wrong with doing so. But it’s important to be clear at the start about who’s who and what’s what.
Second, a question follows from that vote on tiers – which saw the biggest Conservative vote to date against the Government’s strategy. Why has rebellion eased? Why did 55 Tory MPs oppose Ministers over tiering, but only 12 do so over this third lockdown?
In a narrow sense, the answer is bound up with the main factor which has always inhibited our scepticism – namely, the horrible possibility of the NHS collapsing beneath the weight of Covid admissions. There is simply no way that voters, and therefore MPs, would allow the Government to survive it.
But there is a broader explanation: the advent of variants, which has helped to boost those admissions; the arrival of vaccines, and the triumph that they represent for Ministers (as we write) and, finally, the collapse of Sweden as a model for Covid sceptics and deniers both.
We illustrate the claim. There are no two more hallowed conservative institutions than the Daily Telegraph and the Tory backbenches. So let’s use them as evidence of the change in temperature.
Our google search found a single Telegraph comment headline about Sweden in May, two in July and then four in September. Then one in October. Then nothing.
It is important not to mix apples and pears. Some of these were analysis pieces. The first of them was critical of the country’s approach. And no doubt there are better tests than our rough search. Still, the talkativeness followed by silence is instructive.
The scene now shifts to the Commons. Our Hansard search found a single Conservative, Covid-related mention of Sweden in May, one in June, six in September, eight in October, four in November, three in December and one in January.
The pears-and-apples warning applies here, too. Not all the references to the country were complimentary: for example, one was from O’Brien himself. Nonetheless, note the same rough shape as the Telegraph references: a peak in early-to-mid autumn followed by a sharp falling-off.
Which takes us to our third point. Fraser Nelson is right to point out today that “the academics in O’Brien’s sights do seem to have taken a lower profile” – and refers specifically to Carl Heneghan, the Oxford academic. But he is wrong to suggest that our columnist is responsible.
For click on the link to Henegan’s name in Fraser’s article, and you find the same pattern that we detail about Sweden. Henegan had a piece in the paper in May, two in June, two in September, two in October, one in November. Then – again – nothing.
O’Brien only got going on Twitter in mid-October, and the website in which he is involved, Anti-Virus, didn’t start up until this month. It would be absurd to claim that either the Telegraph or his colleagues were deterred in the autumn by the social media activities of (let’s face it) a then-obscure MP.
The more you ponder the facts, the more you come to see that these two conservative institutions, and the mainstream centre-right with them, have not stopped praising Sweden, say, or commissioning Henegan because O’Brien and company are somehow silencing debate.
The commissioning has stopped and pace slowed because those opposed to the Government’s strategy have been losing the political argument. We come back to the basics: vaccines, variants, the threat to the NHS, and criticism from within Sweden itself of the country’s approach, not least by its king.
Fourth point. We write that the Government is winning the political argument. That is not at all the same thing as winning the factual argument – that’s to say, proving which policy applied by which country is the most effective in tackling Covid.
There is a case for a more voluntarist approach just as there is one against it. It was put in an exemplary form back in October, before the vaccine roll-out, on this site by Raghib Ali, who advocated a Plan B “based on the Swedish approach, but with much better protection of the vulnerable, especially in care homes”.
Time will tell. There is a persistent temptation to think since the vaccines arrived that the end of the Covid story is in sight. It may not be. We don’t really know what new variants will be thrown up, what vaccine effectiveness will be – and which nations will eventually be judged to have done best at the bar of history.
Finally, we mull O’Brien’s campaign in the round. Anti-virus identifies some journalists as well as scientists by name and criticises their record. The reaction of some of our colleagues has been a wonder to watch.
O’Brien has been accused of neglecting his constituents, seeking to muzzle debate, and acting as a patsy for the Government. But who is the David here, and who the Goliath? A solitary MP – or the might of the great right-wing papers of Fleet Street and their doubtless better remunerated columnists?
Frankly, we journalists aren’t used to the same tools that we deploy against MPs – such as accounts of what we’ve said and written – being deployed by MPs against us.
None of us like a seachlight shone on our mistakes. (For example, I flinch reflexively when reminded that I once predicted that David Cameron would lose the 2015 election.) Those columnists’ reaction to O’Brien is best captured by the old Dad’s Army catchphrase: “they don’t like it up ’em”.
All the same, we are uneasy about Anti-virus mixing factual analysis with personal criticism. It is a further twist in the tale of our age – acrimony projected by social media with potentially baleful consequences.
O’Brien and company keep within the modest limits of order. That is not always the case on the fringes of the debate where, say, there is talk of a “Covid-fascist state”. What does any decent person do when confronted by a fascist state? He takes up arms against it.
Erasmus once wrote that “the long war of words and writings will end in blows”. Here in Britain, it already has: an MP has been murdered. True, that was in a different context, but the point holds.
The crazies and the gulled can come for anyone, as they recently did on Capitol Hill. Public figure, anti-lockdown journalist – all are vulnerable. Violent rhetoric for clicks, for real, or because one can no longer tell the difference: we’ve all been there (some of us, anyway). Boy, boy, crazy boy: get cool, boy.