Is it naïve to assume that the Fourth Estate has a role in holding the leadership of this country to account? Or do newspapers and the broadcast media serve other masters?
At the start of this week, Sky News, The Independent and The Standard, all ran essentially identical articles proclaiming that “Almost three quarters of people under 50 who needed hospital treatment for the COVID Delta variant last week in England were unvaccinated, figures have revealed”. (Italics added).
Despite being very similar – an odd matter in itself – the articles also happen to be complete hokum. At best a shoddy interpretation of data; at worst a terrible twisting of important facts that could have life and death implications.
I make no criticism of the underlying data from the recently released Technical Briefing 22 from Public Health England (PHE) regarding SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Concern, covering data from 1 February to 29 August 2021. This period of time is not seven days; it is just shy of seven months. But it is actually the source of the phrase “last week” in the above-quoted sentence, as per the second paragraph of Sky’s article: “Data released by Public Health England showed 9,472 people were admitted to hospital with the highly transmissible coronavirus variant in the seven days up to 29 August”.
This sentence is totally false – you can check for yourself and find that 9,472 figure in Table 5 of the report (page 22). Given that vaccination of the under-50s only started about half-way through this period, and prevalence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been relatively low for the second half of that period, the data presented is hardly surprising. But are there any underlying signals that warrant further investigation?
As one can easily tell from the incremental numerator in the Technical Report’s title, it is published regularly. The predecessor, Technical Report 21, includes data to 15 August. It is therefore a fairly straightforward exercise to compare the difference, which shows a completely different story. It seems that in the fortnight to 29 August, the proportion of those admitted to hospital in this category (unvaccinated) fell in each of these categories – under 50, over 50 and all cases. And just to make the obvious leap: this means that the proportion of those vaccinated rose in each of these categories.
Is this meaningful? I don’t know. I don’t have enough data to say – but I would say it warrants more detailed analysis. The population started out as being 100 per cent unvaccinated, and this proportion has shifted over time. More accurately age-stratified statistics would be helpful. The data presented by PHE is for all sequenced samples where the variant has been identified as the Delta strain, which may not be an unbiased sample of all cases. Hospitalisations are important, of course, but if people are being admitted, successfully treated, and then released, then this might actually be a good thing. It would seem that hospital death rates are not “flashing amber”, unlike non-Covid excess mortality at home, which is on a “code red”.
But back to the published material from the Terrible Trio, which was brought to my attention by Alex Groundwater, a programme director working in bio-tech. You will not be surprised to hear that the rest of the articles are similarly riddled with errors and misinterpretations, as well as making leaps of faith that defy rationality.
It’s almost as if – given that these different news publishers have managed to print these essentially identical articles – they were prepared elsewhere and issued to them for publication. What is therefore particularly troubling is the content in the latter parts of the articles. The Independent has subsequently corrected the time period, but not changed the tone of the rest of its article, which switches to emotional blackmail based on the erroneous conclusions from their previous incorrect calculations. Both The Standard and Sky use the infamous passive voice to deliver the same message: “the government has been urged to ‘get on’ with the vaccine booster programme”.
Why? Who is running the show here? If the proportional number of younger people being admitted to hospital is rising, are we sure that this is a good idea? Is it appropriate to use emotional blackmail – and tacitly endorse the coercion of younger people – to participate in a medical programme that has no wider societal benefit but could have terrible long-term consequences for those individuals? By the by, information released by the CDC on 30 August 2021 indicates that post mRNA vaccination, the rate of observed myocarditis (a serious long-term heart condition that has a high fatality rate) is ten times greater than expected in young females, and one hundred times greater than expected in young males. Oh, and what is happening in highly vaccinated Israel versus mostly unvaccinated India? The vaccine saviour narrative is not looking as compelling as some have claimed… unless you are in the business of yoking the inhabitants of the world on a twice-annual booster shot subscription. Is the cure worse than the disease?
These are the kind of questions that I would expect an enquiring Fourth Estate to be exploring. Not parroting a nebulous “party line”. Who provided those scripts for the Terrible Trio to apply some whitewash and then publish with some window dressing? Why the reticence to correct what is obviously wrong? Where are the fact checkers, otherwise so keen on stifling what should be vigorous scientific debate?
Perhaps there is a clue to be found in the Coronavirus Act 2020 and Ofcom’s iron control of media output, essentially requiring the media to regurgitate what the government requests it to say. The danger here is that the checks and balances on the levers of power have not so much been eroded as totally obliterated. Reaction has previously reported on this descent towards the pariah status of a banana republic and the terrible toll this would have, both in terms of lives and quality of life.
What seems particularly galling from this little example is that there seems to have been little attempt from The Independent, Sky and The Standard to even attempt to provide objective information to the public.
They must do better than this. Truthful and accurate reporting matters. It is literally a matter of life and death.
Dr Alex Starling is an advisor to and non-executive director of various early-stage technology companies. Follow him on Twitter: @alexstarling77