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Media’s libertarian Covid sceptics under fire from senior Tory

ToHelm Political Editor
·4-min read

A vice-chair of the Tory party on Sunday launched a savage attack on prominent Conservative libertarians in the media who have persistently played down the dangers of Covid-19, arguing that they “have a hell of a lot to answer for”.

Related: I’d love to ignore ‘Covid sceptics’ and their tall tales. But they make a splash and have no shame

Neil O’Brien, the MP for Harborough, accuses prominent Tory-supporting journalists of making things up and repeatedly peddling claims that have been disproved.

His increasingly heated disagreements with right-wing figures including Toby Young, Allison Pearson and Julia Hartley-Brewer has been building on Twitter over recent days. It mirrors splits among Tory MPs who are themselves deeply divided over how serious the virus is and the need for draconian lockdowns.

But writing in the Observer O’Brien goes further, calling the group “the guilty men (and women) of the media” who must themselves be held to account for putting people at risk.

He adds: “The truth is, the Covid sceptics aren’t really sceptics at all. They engage in motivated reasoning; make stuff up, and double down on claims that have been disproved. They’re powerful figures in the media, not used to being questioned. But the truth is, they have a hell of lot to answer for.”

O’Brien says that from the beginning of the pandemic these media figures underplayed the dangers of Covid-19, then wrongly predicted that the virus was disappearing and by late last summerthen denied there would be a major second wave.

Recently, O’Brien writes, they have shifted their arguments again. Now, “with the new variant exploding, and TV news showing ambulances queuing outside hospitals and wards full of people gasping for breath, the story had to change again. Yes, people were now dying. But not in unusual numbers.

“On 4 January this year Julia Hartley-Brewer reassured us: ‘The virus kills. It just isn’t causing excess deaths anymore.’ This was rather difficult to square with the Office for National Statistics saying there were excess deaths, and that 2020 had seen the largest increase in deaths in a single year in England and Wales since 1940.”

The MP’s clashes with the controversial journalist Young have created particular interest on Twitter. Last Thursday O’Brien tweeted that Young had excised his previous tweets because they had proved to be so wide of the mark on Covid-19. On the same day press regulator Ipso ruled that the Daily Telegraph must publish a correction over a column written by Young in July 2020 containing “inaccurate and misleading information” where he claimed the common cold could provide “natural immunity” to Covid and London was probably approaching herd immunity.

“As the UK tragically hits a record number of Covid-19 deaths, Covid-sceptic-in-chief @toadmeister appears to have deleted all his tweets from last year,” O’Brien wrote.

Young responded saying he did so because of attacks on intolerant critics of his views: “In fact, I installed an app last week that deletes all tweets more than a week old,” he explained. “This was in response to Twitter’s increasing intolerance of people who challenge liberal orthodoxies including Covid orthodoxy.”

Earlier this month Boris Johnson faced another Tory revolt over legislation that placed the country in a third national lockdown as Covid-sceptic MPs on the backbenches made their feelings known. Some 12 Tory and 4 DUP members opposed the legislation. While the rebellion was much smaller than in previous votes – 55 Tory MPs opposed toughening up restrictions in a vote in December – Boris Johnson knows that serious differences of opinion remain that have to be managed.

Last week in a message to fellow Tories in the Covid Recovery Group (CRG), which comprises around 70 MPs wary of lockdown measures, Tory MP Steve Baker said the government’s Covid strategy raised questions about the prime minister’s leadership.

Baker told fellow MPs it was “imperative you equip the chief whip today with your opinion that debate will become about the PM’s leadership if the government does not set out a clear plan for when our full freedoms will be restored, with a guarantee that this strategy will not be used again next winter”.

After his comments created another social media storm Baker later tweeted his complete support for Johnson writing: “What this country needs is the complete success of Boris Johnson, with his excellent EU deal, a successful vaccination programme and a #Road2Recovery back to freedom. I am clear Boris is the only person to lead us out of these difficulties and I support him in that endeavour.”