A Daily Mail article (since edited), “What they DON’T tell you about COVID“, published 20 November 2020, claimed that official projections of Covid deaths and infection rates have been significantly overstated when compared to actual data – suggesting that lockdown measures were an unnecessary infringement on personal freedoms.

What the piece didn’t make clear is that the projections were based on what would happen if no measures were put in place.

The higher projections for infections and deaths were avoided exactly because of restrictions.

Initially, even the Department of Health took the rare step of criticising the article on Twitter, saying that restrictions are in place to save lives and reduce transmission.

But then, after the Department of Health was attacked by the Mail’s defenders, the Government backed down.

Why would they do so?  The article contained serious distortions and risked giving readers an inaccurate perception of the impact of the virus.  This is a serious public health issue – lives are at stake in the willingness of the public to trust the Government’s lockdown policy and other initiatives to contain the virus.

On the face of it, it is a decision which carries the hallmarks of a pathetic government climb-down in the face of press pressure.  Instead of standing up to protect the public, it is easier and more expedient to please the Daily Mail.

It cannot really be that the Government genuinely considers this to be a quality piece of journalism which will support the public’s understanding of the virus.

Dangerous disinformation

The article repeatedly criticises expert projections as unreliable.

It starts by criticising death-rate projections:

How accurate were the Government’s grim predictions?  The short answer is: not very. In a July report commissioned by Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, scientists estimated that there could be 119,000 deaths if a second spike coincided with a peak of winter flu. Yesterday, that figure stood at 54,286 – less than half that.

This presumably refers to the Academy of Medical Sciences Report, Preparing for a Challenging Winter 2020/21, which was indeed commissioned by Sir Patrick Vallance.

The only “119,000” figure which appears to be projected for in that Report:

  1. Does not apply to just winter – is projected to cover deaths from September 20 to June 21
  2. Applies to COVID deaths only and not flu (which is covered elsewhere in the report)
  3. Assumes that it will be “not possible” to respond with an effective, March-style lockdown (of course, the Government has since in fact responded with a lockdown).

So in summary, the Mail’s claim that 119k Covid deaths had been projected to occur alongside a flu spike in winter, it appears, (1) did not apply to winter specifically, (2) did not take into account a flu spike and (3) was a projection made under the assumption that no further lockdowns would occur.

The piece goes on,

What about its prophecies on deaths?  … Its warnings simply don’t bear any relation to reality. During the ‘Halloween horror show’ press conference used by Sir Patrick and Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty to scare the Government into implementing a second lockdown, one of their slides suggested that daily Covid-19 deaths could reach 4,000 a day by December. With ten days to go, we’re still at less than 15 per cent of that figure.

The “Halloween horror show” press conference did indeed include a slide with death rate predictions.  That slide was subtitled in large bold letters:  “England daily deaths if no changes in policy or behaviour”

At that conference it was announced there would be a second national lockdown (a change of policy).  That lockdown was implemented (a change of behaviour).  Deaths have subsequently not reached the figure of 4000.  The Mail’s extraordinary finding is… the lockdown was effective.

The Mail goes on to publish a graph showing the projections for deaths made at the end of October (before lockdown) alongside the reality.  This appears to show, rather unremarkably, that deaths fell within those projections until around the second week of November… when the effects of lockdown could reasonably be expected to be felt.

In summary, this was a deeply misleading and dangerous article, which will stoke the flames of Covid conspiracy theories.

The article also includes some offensively cavalier comments about those groups most at risk of becoming seriously ill with the virus:

So who is Covid-19 killing?  To put it simply, the victims are overwhelmingly the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. Of the 37,470 Covid-19 deaths recorded by NHS England up to November 18, 53.7 percent were of people aged over 80. …

And crucially, those who have died from Covid-19 are overwhelmingly likely to have suffered from a pre-existing condition… the truth is that those who die with pre-existing conditions tend to be suffering from serious, debilitating diseases.  Some 27 per cent of them had diabetes, while 18 per cent had dementia…”

Many people living with diabetes or forms of dementia would not consider their illness “debilitating”.  The implicit suggestion that these lives – senior citizens as well as those with so-called “pre-existing conditions” – are somehow of lesser concern than others is deeply offensive, if not a regulatory matter.

Dubious sources

Parts of The Daily Mail’s article also relies on a graph produced by ‘Statistics Guy’.

Neil O’Brien MP reports that “Statistics Guy” is a blogger and Twitter user (“Statistics Guy Jon”), who uses a picture of an avatar for his image. It is unclear why an unsubstantiated graph from a semi-anonymous social media account with no obvious credentials are being cited as evidence in a well-resourced national newspaper.

In particular, the graph he produced, republished in the article by the Mail, includes a reference to “population growth”.  How that “growth” was accounted for in the calculations for this graph, or projected, is not explained.

Full Fact have explored this in more detail and issued a factcheck here.

A pattern of misreporting

The Daily Mail has campaigned for restrictions to be dropped through its editorials and other coverage since the early stages of the pandemic. Instead of presenting the scientific arguments for and against restrictions, this article follows that pattern of presenting a distorted picture and omitting important details.

Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of any healthy democracy, but so is accurate, evidence-based reporting during a public health crisis that has led to thousands of deaths.

The arguments for and against restrictions are complex and require careful, evidence-based debate. But when public health issues are involved and lives are at stake, the public needs factual information rather than uninformed rhetoric.

At least there is a regulator to keep us safe from press fake news… oh wait

The Daily Mail appear to have made some updates to the article since it was first published, but not on account of any public action from IPSO, who have sat on their hands as usual.

Sometimes, politicians and newspaper representatives try to draw a contrast between the “fake news” of social media and the “accountable journalism” of the national press.  Stories like this show what a lot of nonsense that comparison is.

Until newspapers are independently regulated, they will continue to be able to publish fake news to millions of readers (online and in print) with impunity.

Given the close relationship between the newspaper industry and this Government, vital decisions on matters of public health could be adversely influenced by newspaper owners and editors.  Let us hope that the Government really is listening to the science rather than the falsities being peddled by their friends in the corporate press.

But if the Government cannot even bring itself to criticise a thoroughly distortive piece of journalism like this, we can’t hold out much hope.

This post originally appeared on the Hacked Off Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.