'Bad information ruins lives' - The impact of 12 months of 'relentless' coronavirus misinformation which causes real harm

Myths and misinformation about coronavirus shared via social media, and by politicians and commentators, may have contributed to reluctance to take up the Covid vaccine, a leading Yorkshire researcher has claimed.

Dr Paul Reilly, from the University of Sheffield’s Information School, said there was a “collective responsibility” to call out misinformation on coronavirus, which he said had been present since the beginning of the pandemic.

And another of the region’s top academics has said pharmacies may be the best place to do this.

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Dr Reilly said: “Looking back now, the biggest source of misinformation or disinformation about the coronavirus was Donald Trump, and we have politicians in the UK too who also contribute to that.

Royal Navy personnel prepare to give vaccines to the public at a coronavirus vaccination centre set up at Bath Racecourse. Photo: PA

“We started off last March, where it was about coronavirus cures, we had people reading stuff like if they sipped water and held their breath for certain amounts of time that they would not get it, or more serious ones about people taking things like bleach to avoid getting sick with it.”

He said incorrect information like that “does make it harder for scientific advice about how to prevent the spread to get to the people who need it the most”.

And he said there had been misinformation about the response to the pandemic too, with false numbers of deaths which would have usually occurred in a flu season or wrong facts about lockdown measures.

“I think a lot of people do share information with the best intentions,” he said.

“But often, it can maybe cause more harmful effects, where people now might not want to take a vaccine because they've read about how dangerous that might be or some of the more wild conspiracy theories about 5G causing Covid. as well.”

And he said there had been cases where people who had been taken in by conspriacy theories had subsequently died from the virus.

"The fact that even one person may have died through taking certain Covid cures that were being touted is one person too many," he said.

The services of independent fact checking charity Full Fact, meanwhile, have never been so key.

Abbas Panjwani, who has been a fact checker with the organisation since 2018, said: "It's been a tough year, this stuff has been pretty relentless."

"We say bad information ruins lives, and I think the clearest example of that is with regard to health misinformation," he said.

This time last year, the charity was dealing with correcting the record on "conspiracies about whether we were being told everything about coronavirus", he said.

"The early wave of stuff indirectly leads to worse outcomes but then it became a lot more direct as the coronavirus came to the UK and to Europe, and the narrative and misinformation we saw shifted to people talking about how you would prevent it, or how you cure it."

And he said there was a difference between advice on how to alleviate symptoms while recovering, and those who thought they could prevent the disease in incorrect ways.

He said: "That's really concerning for us for two reasons, one is potential financial detriment, so people buying things based on the fact they think it will help them and it doesn't, and the second - which is more concerning - is the idea that people might be doing these things and think they're immune, and then put themselves at greater risk being out in the community."

And he added: "We're seeing a lot more now in the realm of 'Covid isn't as dangerous as you think it is', that was always there but has really ramped up recently."

The Government has said it is concerned about this misinformation especially in Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, where not only has the pandemic hit harder but also where the willingness to have a vaccine is lower.

Data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found ethnic minorities, younger adults and women are less likely to say they will get a coronavirus vaccine.

Overall, 88 per cent of adults said they would be very or fairly likely to have the vaccine if offered, the ONS said.

It said the findings should be treated with caution, as some of the sub groups analysed had small sample sizes.

But they found less than half (49 per cent) of 150 black or black British adults said they would be likely to get the vaccine, compared to 85 per cent of 13,240 white adults.

More than a quarter (28 per cent) said they would be unlikely to do so, as did seven per cent of white adults.

Some 13 per cent of 170 people with mixed ethnicity and eight per cent of 460 Asian or Asian British adults said they would be unlikely to get a jab.

Professor Mahendra Patel, of the University of Bradford, said pharmacies would be key to making sure people, especially in BAME communities, felt confident in having the vaccine.

“One of the things that people don’t mention, and we need to mention, is pharmacy often can help in the myths and the misinformation that’s getting around,” Prof Patel, who is also the national Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and pharmacy lead for a key trial at Oxford University, said.

Prof Patel said a huge part of the pharmacy workforce were from BAME communities and so “understand the culture, who understand some of the religious differences, the beliefs, attitude barriers that we need to overcome”.

And he stressed how there was not a “bog-standard messaging” that could be given to the whole BAME community.

While he added this also applied to deprived white communities who were also targeted with misinformation.

“We’ve got to remember that the BAME community is a very heterogeneous bag of tricks, and it’s heterogeneity within heterogeneity, so there’s not a one-size fits all, it’s very complex and we need to look at that but [in a pharmacy] you’ve got somebody right at the point where they can reach them,” he said.

“And there are people within the white deprived communities that we need to reach out to equally.”

And he said the key was to consistently, and rapidly, give the facts when confronted by conspiracy theories or wrong information, because even when corrected once people could be taken in again.

“You need as many people giving that information as possible because they might trust Dr Patel but then they’ve heard something else from a nextdoor neighbour,” he said.

Dr Reilly said it was not a case of people who believed misinformation being less intelligent than those who did not, but that he suspected the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and that fear had driven the rise in the sharing of such myths.

“For a lot of people in a pandemic, where this is unknown, i don’t think they have shared information or beliefs out of any sort of lack of intelligence,” he said.

“I think particularly when we look at misinformation amplified by politicians or the media, it gives a degree of credibility.”

It comes as Tory MP Desmond Swayn refused to apologise for telling vaccine sceptics to “persist” with their campaign against coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

Cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Priti Patel both called for him to withdraw his remarks, which included a claim that coronavirus data had been “manipulated”.

Mr Gove condemned his Conservative colleague as “completely out of order” while Ms Patel said he was “thoroughly wrong”.

But despite the two Cabinet ministers condemning Sir Desmond, Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed not to be aware of the remarks.

The Conservative Party has declined to suspend the lockdown-sceptic MP but it is understood he will be asked to attend meetings with scientific advisers.

Dr Reilly said: “The problem there is if you have people in positions like that, who are giving airtime to this, that doesn’t help the scientific advice getting through.

“It’s not like something else where people have reference points.”

He said both social media platforms had a responsibility to act to limit misinformation but there was also a “collective responsibility” on politicians and to tackle the issue as well.

A document released by the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) earlier this month said among the barriers to vaccine uptake is the perception of risk, low confidence in the vaccine, and lack of endorsement from trusted providers and community leaders.

NHS England has said it is “supporting local authorities in their vital work with their diverse communities and faith groups to promote vaccine acceptance and willingness to accept the vaccination offer”.

Habib Naqvi, director of the NHS Race and Health Observatory, said: “Vaccine hesitancy amongst some groups, including from black and other minority communities, reiterate the critical need for local diverse, tailored support and communications to tackle misinformation, increase trust and ensure reasoned decisions are made based on facts.”

A government spokesperson said: "Our priority is ensuring the safety of the British public. We now have a safe vaccine that will save lives and livelihoods and it's vital we arm ourselves with the facts from authoritative sources.

"Where dangerous content does spread we are taking tough action to stem it quickly with specialist government units working around the clock to find and rebut false and dangerous claims."