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22 December 2020

Boris Johnson needs to stop making it so easy for Covid-19 conspiracy theories to spread

The government’s poor messaging and incoherent policy created a breeding ground for misinformation over the new virus strain. 

By Sarah Manavis

On Saturday afternoon (19 December), as Boris Johnson told those in London and the south-east that their Christmas plans had been cancelled, three distinct trends appeared on social media. The first was the sharing of content showing thousands of people fleeing the capital ahead of the new tier four restrictions beginning at midnight. There were videos of crowded stations and screenshots of rail websites with all departure trains sold out. 

The second trend, witnessed at regular intervals during the pandemic, was moralising over whether individuals should leave to see their friends and families elsewhere in the country (for some, the only opportunity to do so this year).

The third, though, was slightly less predictable, and was linked to the main theme of Johnson’s press conference: that a new mutant strain of the virus had emerged – one that, while seemingly not more lethal, is up to 70 per cent more transmissible. This, Johnson said, was the reason the Christmas rules had changed, not the advice he had been given for months by government scientists. And thus, a conspiracy theory was born: the mutant strain is fake.

According to proponents of this theory, the variant was fabricated so that the government can avoid blame for having to change Christmas rules at the eleventh hour. As case numbers surged – something many predicted after London was placed in tier two rather than three following the second national lockdown – Johnson realised that the impact would be deadly and created a scapegoat in the new strain. 

[See also: How anti-vaxxers capitalised on coronavirus conspiracy theories]

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As always, at this point, it’s important to emphasise that this claim is not true. For a number of reasons, we can feel assured that this potent new strain is real – principally, because its emergence has been ratified and supported by external scientific bodies. The chaos that has unfolded internationally (travel bans to and from the UK; issues with food transportation between Dover and Calais) was predictable. Food shortages and heightened tension with European countries is something the government would have done what it could to avoid. 

But the allure of conspiracism around the new strain is understandable, given the context, this government’s track record and the news becoming ever worse. Only last Wednesday (16 December), the Prime Minister suggested that changing the Christmas rules would be “inhuman”, despite scientists warning against the relaxation. It is difficult to accept such a worrying development so soon after the vaccine roll-out offered new hope. And even if you don’t care for Christmas, a months-long lockdown remains impressively grim. 

In this environment, it’s easy to see how those who have resisted conspiracy theories – in a year awash with them – end up being seduced. You can point to the ways in which this particular theory is different to, say, believing in QAnon or the various theories around 5G. However, evidence shows that conspiracy singularity (the phenomenon where many people end up believing a series of conspiracies after getting hooked on just one) is an ever-growing problem, aided by social media. You may think your tweets are merely displaying a healthy degree of scepticism, but someone reading them may come to truly believe that we can’t trust anything we’re told. 

[See also: QAnon: how a paranoid delusion is growing in the UK]

For those looking for an explanation, or merely a place to direct their rage, the government is still ultimately to blame. Even though hospitalisations were still high when the second national lockdown ended, the government proceeded to restore the tiers system rather than extend lockdown. On Christmas, the message from ministers could have been more cautious from the start: that you might be able to see your family, but extreme measures would have to be taken for that to be even a remote possibility. That message never appeared and neither did any of the measures required to keep infections low enough to “save Christmas”. The devastation many are feeling across the country is due to a choice the government made; a complete and avoidable failure to mitigate both infections and heartbreak. 

The UK government is alert to the claims that the new strain is a fabrication. A leak to Business Insider on Monday (21 December) showed emails between officials in No 10 monitoring the extreme spike in conspiracy theories following the news of the variant. Ultimately, it is down to the government to prevent the spread of this theory – one that has arisen thanks to the catastrophic messaging and viral spread over the last month. But as we (hopefully) enter the final stretch of this pandemic, we need to keep our own heads above water – not only for ourselves, but for those in our orbit who are more susceptible to drowning.

[See also: Why pandemics create conspiracy theories]