During an anti-lockdown event on 24 July, dubbed the “The Worldwide Rally For Freedom”, Vernon Coleman (who we have fact checked before, under his online pseudonym “Old Man In A Chair”) made a speech in Trafalgar Square where he made dozens of false and misleading claims.
These incorrect claims include that up to 14 million people will die because of lockdown, wearing masks will “make children stupid” and that Covid-19 is no more dangerous than flu.
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Neil Fergurson and mathematical modellers did not say “tens of millions” of people would die from Covid-19
Early on in his speech, Mr Coleman accused mathematical modellers and former government advisor Professor Neil Ferguson of claiming “that we were all going to die, millions and tens of millions of people were going to die” because of Covid-19.
There is no record of Neil Ferguson or other mathematical modellers saying this. This claim may be based on a report by Imperial College, published in March last year and co-authored by Professor Ferguson, which estimated that, if no action was taken, 510,000 people in the UK and 2.2 million in the US could die from the disease. It was not a prediction of how many people would die if actions like lockdowns were taken.
As of 17 August, 4.37 million people globally have died of Covid-19.
Between 290,000 and 650,000 people a year die from the flu globally, but this is still fewer than how many died from Covid last year
During his speech, Mr Coleman said the flu “usually, and can, kill up to 650,000 people a year”.
While the World Health Organization estimates that between 290,000 and 650,000 people globally suffer influenza-related respiratory deaths each year, it also estimates that at least 3 million were reported to have died from Covid-19 in 2020.
Data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows that between 1 January and 31 August 2020, long before the roll-out of any of the vaccines, the number of people in England and Wales who died where Covid was the underlying cause (48,168) was far greater than those where flu (394) or pneumonia (13,619) was the cause .
According to think tank the Health Foundation, on average (in a bad flu year) around 30,000 people die from flu and pneumonia in the UK. It also points out that years of life lost from flu and pneumonia are around a sixth of those lost to people who died of Covid. On average, every person who died of Covid-19 lost around 10 years of life.
We’ve written more about comparisons between the flu and Covid-19 before.
Flu and Covid-19 are not the same and there is no evidence the government thought coronavirus was no more dangerous
Mr Coleman also said the government knew that “Covid-19 is no more dangerous than the flu” before lockdowns were imposed. He says evidence of this still exists on government websites, which he has signposted to on his own website. But the link on Mr Coleman’s website takes you to Public Health England guidance on high consequence infectious diseases (HCID). This is a list of serious diseases which usually have high fatality rates and are difficult to recognise and detect rapidly.
Covid-19 was added to this list in January but then declassified on 19 March as more data became available about mortality rates and a specific test for the illness was developed, meaning it no longer met the criteria for an HCID. Later that month lockdowns came into force.
On his own website, Mr Coleman says this is proof that the government knew the disease was downgraded to “flu level” as a full lockdown was imposed. This appears to be what he is referring to in his speech. However this is not true. While Covid-19 does not have the same case fatality rate as diseases on the HCID, this does not mean it is not dangerous nor that it is the same as the flu.
There is little to no evidence to support the claim the government considered Covid-19 was no worse than the flu. By 2 March scientists had warned ministers of the potential of 500,000 deaths in the UK.
By 12 March, Boris Johnson had publicly stated: “Some people compare it to seasonal flu, alas that is not right. Due to the lack of immunity this disease is more dangerous.”
Mr Coleman also claims that Covid-19 is “just the flu, rebranded. It's a well marketed version of the flu.” We’ve covered the misleading claim that Covid-19 is the same as the flu on a number of occasions.
We have also recently reappraised this claim. It is difficult to make a direct comparison between Covid-19 and influenza because the full, global rollout of the Covid-19 vaccines has not yet been implemented, but the unique differences in fatality rates, symptomatic transmission rates and the long-term harms caused by each condition makes it misleading to say the two are alike.
No evidence that 12 to 13 million people will die through combination of lockdown, flu and pathogenic priming.
Mr Coleman also suggests the death rate in winter will be enormous, because “people have been locked down, because the flu is going to come back, because pathogenic priming is going to kill people who have the vaccine.”
While the effects of the lockdown, such as the growing NHS waiting list, may influence otherwise preventable deaths, available estimates do not match the number of deaths Mr Coleman quotes and there appears to be little other evidence that any other effects of lockdown contribute meaningfully to such a high number of fatalities.
As mentioned earlier, in a bad year flu on average kills around 30,000 people in England and Wales while the WHO estimates between 290,000 and 650,000 people globally suffer influenza-related respiratory deaths each year. There are some fears flu deaths could reach as high as 60,000 this winter but this nowhere nears the 12 to 13 million figure Mr Coleman quotes.
The Department for Health and Social Care and the Office for National Statistics published a report last year that tried to estimate the impact of lives lost as a result of “lockdown-induced recession”.
The report estimated that in the medium-term, the effects of a recession caused by lockdown could lead to 18,000 excess deaths every two to five years, predominantly due to cardiovascular disease.
It also provides a “pessimistic” estimate of the impact of a 2-month lockdown, meaning it estimated what the most damaging outcome could be. Using this type of worst-case modelling the report suggested lockdown could cause up to 52,000 excess deaths. By contrast its most optimistic modelling suggested lockdown could lead to 800 fewer deaths, compared to life outside of it.
However, there is no clear figure on the impact of lockdown on mortality and even the report warns that “All of these estimates are based on arbitrary, purely illustrative, assumptions... and therefore their reliability and robustness are considered to be very low."
The paper goes into further detail about lockdown’s potential impact on excess deaths in social care and delays to medical care, which was covered in-part by some media outlets, but nowhere do these projections come close to the 12 to 13 million figure Mr Coleman quoted.
As for pathogenic priming, this is another name given to antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE), a mechanism whereby antibodies, generated from a previous immune response, don’t stop you from getting ill again and instead exacerbate your immune response, worsening whatever disease you have.
It is very rare and while there is some evidence of ADE-type reactions to the SARS and MERs vaccines (which are both types of coronavirus), there has been no evidence of ADE reactions to Covid-19 vaccines.
Social distancing is effective even if air droplets can travel up to 25 feet
Mr Coleman claims that social distancing “was always a joke because a cough or a sneeze can travel 25 feet.”
Studies have shown that in some circumstances a sneeze can propel air droplets up to 26 feet and coughing 18 feet. However, other evidence suggests that while you are still susceptible to infection at more than two metres, a significantly greater number of infectious droplets are transmitted at distances shorter than that.
While there is debate about whether two metres is still too close for social distancing to be totally effective, papers published by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) during the course of the pandemic stated the risk of close-range transmission of Covid-19 “grows exponentially as distance reduces below 2m”.
Masks do far more good than harm and are effectively worn by surgeons in theatre
In his speech, Mr Coleman both claims he knows of “100 scientific papers, proving conclusively that masks do more harm than good” and that “a lot of surgeons don't wear masks these days, because it's been proven that they don't do any good.”
Although there are rare instances of harm involving some of the tightest masks, such as N95 or FFP2 masks, ordinary masks are not harmful. We have looked at similar claims many times before, as have other fact checking services.
While there exists debate about the efficacy of masks used in surgery, there is at least some evidence available which show they do good. In a meta-analysis of 15 studies, researchers found they were effective in decreasing “biological loads in theatre environments”.
Professor Neil Mortensen, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England told Full Fact: “Wearing protective personal equipment (PPE) including face masks remains absolutely critical to protecting the health both of medical staff and their patients.
“COVID-19 is an airborne virus, so masks are an important tool helping reduce transmission. If you enter a healthcare setting, then do please remember to wear a mask.”
No evidence that masks cause dementia, hypoxia and hypercapnia, bacterial pneumonia, and will make children "stupid”
Mr Coleman goes on to make a series of more specific claims about the effects of masks including that they cause hypoxia, hypercapnia, bacterial pneumonia and will make people “demented in 10 years time”. He also alleges that “kids at school who wear masks will be the stupid kids in a few years time”.
We have already debunked the claim that face masks cause hypoxia (a medical term for low levels of oxygen in the body), as have other fact checkers. The WHO has said that, while facemasks can be uncomfortable, surgical face masks do not lead to oxygen deficiency.
We’ve also debunked the claim that masks cause hypercapnia, a condition that leads to an excess of CO2 in the bloodstream. A review of evidence on mask wearing, which investigated harm, showed that while some people who wore N95 masks had elevated carbon dioxide levels and reduced oxygen levels, the same was not the case with surgical masks or other types of masks.
There is no evidence that mask wearing increases the risk of contracting bacterial pneumonia.
There is also no evidence that wearing a face mask will cause dementia, although this claim has also been made by other conspiracy theorists. Researchers examining the links between air pollution and dementia even suggested the benefit face masks could have to neurological health where air quality is poor.
The Covid-19 vaccines are not experimental
At one point, Mr Coleman claims Covid-19 vaccines have been given “to 7 billion as a test”, suggesting the global vaccination programme is experimental.
It’s not true that all vaccine recipients are taking part in a trial and we have dealt with this type of claim on a number of occasions. All of the Covid-19 vaccines authorised for use in the UK have been shown to be safe and effective in clinical trials.
It’s normal that authorities continue to monitor the safety of these vaccines even after they have been approved. This monitoring happens with all vaccines, including those that have been in use for years, to detect any adverse effects. Just because studies into these vaccines are continuing, doesn’t mean anyone getting the vaccine in the nationwide roll-out is part of an experiment.
Reports of deaths following vaccination are not proof that anyone has died from vaccines
Mr Coleman suggests the death toll caused by Covid-19 vaccinations is 18,928 in the EU, 11,405 in the US and 1,470 in the UK. None of this is true.
As of 14 July 2021, only 10 days before the Freedom Rally, around 5,200 deaths had been reported following vaccination among the four authorised Covid-19 vaccines across the EU. The European Medicines Agency says that “the fact that someone has had a medical issue or died after vaccination does not necessarily mean that the vaccine caused this.”
According to the most recent data, the United States’ Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) received 6,340 reports of deaths following vaccination, far fewer than Mr Coleman’s quote. The CDC says it has not established a “causal link” between reported deaths and vaccines, although there are indications of such a relationship between the “J&J/Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine and TTS, a rare and serious adverse event - blood clots with low platelets - which has caused deaths.”
The claim for the UK is also untrue. It is based on around 1,500 reports sent to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) of a fatal outcome shortly following vaccination. However, the regulator says reviews of individual reports and patterns of reporting do not suggest the vaccines caused these deaths.
Confusingly, despite quoting a much lower figure for the UK first, Mr Coleman later went on to say that 5,522 people had died from the vaccine in Scotland.
This is based on figures from Public Health Scotland (PHS) which state 5,528 people had died within 28 days of being vaccinated, a statistic not recorded by the MHRA. However, once again, this figure does not show vaccinations led to death. It is just the number of people who died roughly within a month of having a vaccine.
Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid advisor Devi Sridhar did claim the Pfizer vaccine was “100% safe for children”
At one point, Mr Coleman refers to Devi Sridhar, a member of the Scottish government’s Covid-19 Advisory Group, and a segment recorded for children’s TV show Newsround about Covid vaccines.
Mr Coleman said: “In the UK, the BBC gave airtime to a woman called Devi Sridhar… and Sridhar said on the BBC that the vaccine.... was 100% safe for children.”
Professor Sridhar said on children’s TV show BBC Newsround that the Pfizer vaccine specifically was 100% safe for children. This was later amended on the Newsround site to state they had removed “a reference by a contributor that the Pfizer vaccine is "100% safe"
The website also included a statement from the MHRA which said: "We have carefully reviewed clinical trial data in children aged 12 to 15 years and have concluded that the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective in this age group and that the benefits of this vaccine outweigh any risk.”
Full Fact recently fact checked a misleading analysis of Ms Sridhar’s interview.
There have been tests to assess the safety of combining or overlapping Covid-19 and flu jabs
Mr Coleman also says that in the autumn a Covid-19 jab and a flu jab will be offered at the same time. He then goes on to claim: “Guess how many people have been tested having two jobs at the same time? If your guess is naught, then you're right.”
Researchers have been assessing the use of Covid and flu vaccines at the same time, but it is not true that there has been no analysis of the interactions between the two vaccines.
Other research suggests that combining Covid and flu vaccines are safe and effective although other studies are ongoing.