James Wells

Nov 29, 2021

5 min read

Is The Sunday Times and NHS guilty of spreading covid misinformation?

James Wells, former Head of UK Trade and Business Inflation Statistics at the Office for National Statistics and former MEP for Wales.

Over the past few weeks, I believe we have witnessed an escalation in the amount of covid misinformation presented to the UK public. The most worrying of which, in my opinion, is related to claims that unvaccinated people account for the majority of covid patients receiving care in hospitals and ICUs.

This simply isn’t the case, as official data shows. This is not just a case of rogue Twitter accounts either. The first example I will highlight relates to the NHS and an allegation that it is texting misinformation to the public in order to persuade them to get a booster jab.

The text below was shared on Twitter on 29 November by @westhamLindsey saying, ‘NHS sent me this on Friday do you think it is misinformation?’. I have since confirmed this with Lindsey who forwarded the text below.

The text claims ‘8 out of 10 patients in hospital with covid aren’t fully vaccinated’. The NHS is therefore, either guilty of sharing misinformation, or highly misleading information. Official data for England shows just 35% of covid admissions and 20% of deaths are accounted for by unvaccinated people.

The most likely explanation is that the NHS is not including the double vaccinated in its figure and is only referring to those who have had a booster jab as ‘fully vaccinated’. If this is the case it is a highly misleading figure given that most people haven’t been able to get a booster yet. It is also hardly a great advert for the vaccines.

This of course comes on the back of claims by Amanda Pritchard, Chief Executive of the NHS, saying hospitals are busier this year compared to the same period last year, when the opposite is in fact the case.

The other notable point about the text is that it uses what psychologists refer to as a ‘nudge’. For the NHS to be misusing data in this way is very concerning in itself, but to use it in conjunction with techniques used by behavioural psychologists is unacceptable. It suggests the public should be very wary about what the NHS tells them in future.

The second example I want to highlight concerns an article published in The Sunday Times on 28 November titled “I suppress a howl of disbelief. She would rather die than get a covid vaccine”. The article was written by Rachel Clarke, who is a doctor that has 225,000 followers on Twitter and uses the handle @doctor_oxford.

I believe the article has been cleverly crafted to obscure the truth, while using emotional storytelling to direct judgement on those who have chosen not to get vaccinated. In summary, I believe the article is highly misleading and extremely manipulative.

The subtitle to the article states “Some 75 per cent of those suffocating in intensive care with the coronavirus are unvaccinated”, which is then followed by a story of someone called Ellen who refuses to get vaccinated. The language used is purposefully emotional, for example, “Does she not know how many unvaccinated young men and women with intact immune systems are suffocating to death in the intensive care unit one floor above her?”

The irony is, while the author insinuates that Ellen does not know the statistics, the truth is, neither does she. The article claims that “Of the Covid patients in intensive care in recent months, the majority — nearly 75 per cent according to the latest data — have chosen not to be vaccinated.”

Several statisticians and a medical journalist posted Tweets asking Ms Clarke where she sourced the data to back-up the premise of the story, to which she highlighted analyses published by ‘Intensive Care National Audit & research Centre’ (ICNARC).

I have looked at the report and believe the table containing the figure is on page 45 in “Table 16. Vaccination status for patients admitted 1 May 2021 to 31 July 2021”. The table states 73% of those admitted to English ICUs in this period were unvaccinated.

Firstly, the ICU admissions figures are not from ‘recent months’ as is claimed in the article. They are in fact up to six months old. A very large and important distortion in my opinion, particularly given how different the overall picture is now.

Secondly, patients with serious underlying health issues are frequently unable to get vaccinated because they are too ill to do so. This is key, because if these are mainly patients with severe underlying health conditions, then using this data to judge healthy people who choose not to get vaccinated is disingenuous and constitutes a form of emotional bullying.

The data shows that 36% of the ICU admissions (638) were in the under 40’s, which is a high proportion of the overall number and not what you would expect for this age group if we looked at wider statistics on covid. This further suggests these are mostly patients with severe underlying health conditions, many of whom would have been unable to be vaccinated.

The article also fails to say where the patients caught covid as we know the vaccinated transmit covid and that many cases originate in hospitals. What we do know is that the overwhelming majority of people who catch covid survive, and in doing so, acquire natural immunity. We also know that natural immunity provides better protection that also lasts longer (versus a vaccine).

In summary, the data used to support the premise of the article does no such thing. Given the author is a doctor, it is unlikely this was by accident, but I will let Rachel defend her credibility, as I have no evidence it was deliberate.

Let me be clear, I am not claiming vaccines do not work, or that the elderly and vulnerable should not be given the option of getting vaccinated. What I find totally unacceptable is those who attempt to mislead the public with emotionally loaded stories like this, using data that does not support the narrative presented.

Parents, teenagers, young adults, and those who remain unvaccinated are all being asked to make an informed decision. Most who remain unvaccinated are in very low risk groups and should not be emotionally bullied and lied to in order to get them to consent.

Rachel and others need to be reminded of medical ethics and the guidance on informed consent, because it is not informed consent if people are misled, bullied and lied to.