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27 January 2021updated 28 Jan 2021 8:36am

First Thoughts: Following the science, Covid deniers, and the launch of GB News

It's wrong to present science as a single entity of uncontested knowledge, when sharp disagreements are normal. 

By Peter Wilby

A friend reports symptoms of coronavirus infection, followed by two positive tests, 19 days after receiving his first Pfizer vaccination dose. Does this mean that a single dose doesn’t give enough protection? Possibly, but it’s also possible, as my friend acknowledges, that, without the vaccine coursing through his body, he would have been in hospital gasping for breath.

“Following the science” was always a nonsensical Downing Street soundbite. “Science” is not a single entity of uncontested knowledge but a multidisciplinary realm where disagreements are as numerous and sharp as in any other walk of life. That has never been truer than now as ministers are assailed by demands that, instead of delaying second vaccine doses for up to 12 weeks, they should stick to the 21-day interval recommended by Pfizer. The medical royal colleges, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the British Society of Immunology support the government. The World Health Organisation, the European Medicines Agency and the doctors’ trade union the British Medical Association don’t.

[See also: Editor’s note: Our national mourning and the future of newspapers]

Ministers can’t be expected to adjudicate between these contesting opinions. What they can do, having placed what amounts to a bet, is to play down expectations. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, says vaccinations represent “safety” for the individual and a “route out” for “all of us”. In reality, we cannot be certain of either, particularly since Pfizer’s supplies from its Belgian plant may be disrupted. But vaccines do offer a good chance of easing the immediate pressure on the NHS and that, for now, is all that can be said with confidence.

Head in the sand

Meanwhile, spare a thought for the Covid deniers and lockdown sceptics struggling to explain the post-Christmas surge in hospital admissions and deaths. In his latest column, the Mail on Sunday’s Peter Hitchens suggests we are suffering not from a coronavirus epidemic but from “an epidemic of despair” caused by lockdowns. He writes: “How many have seen parents and grandparents, deprived of… social contacts and interests… fade into shadows of themselves?”

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I do hope my old friend and sparring partner, who turns 70 this year and is sounding increasingly incoherent, does not himself succumb.

[See also: Leader: An avoidable catastrophe]

The Special Relationship

After Boris Johnson became the first European leader to speak on the phone to President Joe Biden after the inauguration, Downing Street proudly released a statement, faithfully reproduced at length by its press supporters. “They… discussed the benefits of a potential free trade deal between our two countries,” it said. If this was true, the equivalent White House statement, less widely reported in the British press, didn’t think it worth mentioning.

Britain’s Fox

GB News, the TV channel to be launched later this year, has begun a campaign to recruit 140 “disruptors and innovators” who wish to “reshape television and digital news”. Will this be the long-feared UK equivalent of the US’s Fox News, dividing British broadcast news coverage along partisan lines? Since the only thing to be “disrupted” in TV news is the mighty BBC, frequently caricatured as a mouthpiece of the “liberal metropolitan elite”, one is bound to be suspicious.

However, I am inclined for now to give it the benefit of the doubt. Its star presenter Andrew Neil and one of its most prominent backers, the hedge fund trader Paul Marshall, both favoured Brexit. But though they are undeniably right-of-centre, neither is of the head-banging tendency. Neil is so tough on politicians of all colours that, during the 2019 election campaign, Johnson backed out of an interview with him; Marshall is a former Lib Dem donor and member and he funds UnHerd, a comment website. I doubt either will be keen on getting down and dirty in the culture wars.

Perhaps we lefties should support their project. Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News and much further to the right than anybody so far hired by GB News, also plans a TV channel. With luck, a channel run by less objectionable right-wingers will deprive it of an audience. 

[See also: Why the Foxification of the British media must be resisted]

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This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost