The broadcaster Maajid Nawaz got many of the facts about Covid-19 wrong while talking on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast.
The podcast was released on 19 February 2022, but it was recorded around three weeks earlier, on or around 25 January. At one point [1h, 56m, 40s], Mr Nawaz describes an article from that day’s Independent as “today’s news”.
We have written about Covid misinformation on the Joe Rogan Experience twice before.
Full Fact made contact with Mr Nawaz to ask about his misleading claims. His literary agency replied: “Unfortunately, Maajid’s hectic schedule means he will not be able to participate this time.”
We’ll take Mr Nawaz’s claims in turn.
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The Covid vaccines do protect children against severe Covid
When discussing the Covid vaccines, Mr Rogan asked Mr Nawaz [at 1h, 31m, 40s]: “But doesn’t it still protect them from hospitalisation and death?”
Mr Nawaz replied: “Depending on age. So, a five-year-old? Definitely not. A 12-year-old? No.”
This is false.
We have written before that the risk to children of severe illness from Covid is very low. However, vaccination does reduce even this small risk, both in healthy children and in children with underlying health conditions.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that the vaccines can protect children of 5 and older “from severe disease, hospitalizations, or developing long-term complications if they do get COVID-19”.
A CDC study published in January 2022 found that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine were 91% effective in protecting against multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a serious but rare condition associated with Covid that can occur in children.
In the UK, talking about children aged 12-15, the NHS says: “1 dose of the COVID-19 vaccine gives good protection against your child getting seriously ill. But 2 doses gives stronger and longer-lasting protection.”
The Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has said that vaccination protects against severe illness in healthy 12-15-year-olds, calculating that a million first doses of the vaccine would prevent about 87 hospitalisations in this age group. It has also recommended a “non-urgent offer” of the vaccine to all 5-11-year-olds in order to “increase the immunity of vaccinated individuals against severe COVID-19”.
Infection rates were higher in England in January 2022
Mr Nawaz said [at 1h, 26m, 05s]: “Today, right now, England that doesn’t have vaccine passports, compared to Wales and Scotland that do. And we have lower [infection] rates in England.”
In fact, when he was speaking, England had higher Covid prevalence than either Wales or Scotland.
According to the Coronavirus Infection Survey from the Office for National Statistics, about 6.85% of the population of England would test positive for Covid in the data published on 19 January, compared with 5.56% in Wales and 5.65% in Scotland.
In the data published on 26 January, it was about 5.47% in England, 3.69% in Wales and 4.49% in Scotland. (And indeed England still has a higher prevalence, in the latest data available, which was published on 23 February.)
If Mr Nawaz was thinking of daily reported Covid cases instead, he was also incorrect. England detected more Covid cases per 100,000 people than either Wales or Scotland throughout the week ending 25 January 2022.
Many factors could influence different infection rates in different places—including differences in weather, behaviour, vaccination rates and past infection rates. They are not necessarily caused by different vaccination rules.
Far more than 17,000 people died of Covid in the UK
Mr Nawaz seemed to repeat a common falsehood that only around 17,000 people in the UK have died of Covid. This is not true, and is something we have checked twice before.
During a series of exchanges with Mr Rogan, Mr Nawaz said that a large number of deaths had occurred in the UK recently
Mr Nawaz said [at 1h, 32m, 05s]: “The Office for National Statistics in the UK through a Freedom of Information request has just revealed the number of people who died solely from Covid with no other co-existing illness: 17,731, if my memory serves […] Total number of people from the beginning of this pandemic who have died only from Covid […] in Britain. We were told the figure was in the hundreds of thousands. Now this is all coming out in the UK now. There’s a bit of a retreat from all of this narrative.”
He also said [at 1h 53m 25s]: “[The ONS] said, yeah, 17,000—whatever it was, 730-whatever—people died only from Covid since the beginning of this pandemic, right.”
Later, he said [at 1h 58m 45s]: “We know the Covid deaths are 17,000.”
This appears to refer to a real FOI response from the ONS, which said that 17,371 people in England and Wales had died of Covid by the end of September 2021 without any other pre-existing conditions mentioned on their death certificates. This means that a doctor familiar with the case recorded Covid as the underlying cause of death, but did not record any other pre-existing contributory causes. (The doctor may have included some other contributory causes which followed after the infection with Covid.)
This was not new information, despite what Mr Nawaz said. The data has been regularly published since early 2021.
It also does not mean that these are the only people who truly died “of Covid”. In a blog published on 26 January, the ONS said “to suggest that [the 17,371] figure represents the real extent of deaths from the virus is both factually incorrect and highly misleading”.
Death certificates allow doctors to record multiple causes of death, but only one is counted as the underlying cause. This cause is what people are ultimately said to die “of”. However, it is common for doctors to mention other conditions that played a part in the death, either before or after the underlying cause occurred.
Indeed, many common underlying causes of death, including dementia, heart disease, cancer and pneumonia, are mentioned as part of a list of two or three different causes, on average.
As an example, if someone dies with an underlying cause of cancer, but also had diabetes beforehand, that doesn’t mean they didn’t really die of cancer.
In fact, when Nr Nawaz was speaking, the data showed that 142,576 deaths due to Covid had been registered in England and Wales alone.
Sajid Javid did not say that all Covid deaths have been overestimated
Mr Nawaz said [at 1h 55m 32s]: “So the Health Secretary in the UK came out and admitted that the Covid deaths had been overestimated because there’s been a mix between ‘with Covid’ and ‘of Covid’.”
This is missing some important context.
Mr Nawaz appears to be referring to comments made by the Health Secretary Sajid Javid on 19 January 2022, which Mr Nawaz tweeted about on 23 January and has also mentioned subsequently on his blog.
During a press conference, Mr Javid said: “Also, with Omicron […] we estimate around 40% of the people with Covid in hospital are there not because they’ve got Covid. They happen to have Covid […] The deaths that are being reported of people that were Covid positive within 28 days of passing away, that many of those people would not have necessarily died of Covid.”
This means that the daily death figures following a positive Covid test might have included a substantial number of ‘incidental’ Covid deaths. However, it does not mean that this was true to the same extent before the emergence of Omicron in the UK in December 2021.
It also does not mean that death figures based on death certificates are exaggerated at all, because they show the cause of death as assessed by a doctor familiar with the case, not simply the number of people who died after testing positive.
In short, these comments from Mr Javid do not mean that the overall Covid death toll has been exaggerated—only that the daily deaths measure published by the government had become less accurate.
Photograph taken by Shayan Barjesteh van Waalwijk van Doorn