Debunking Covid-19 myths
Myths surrounding Covid-19 are no joke – they are dangerous and hampering our prospects for returning to normality. We are building a comprehensive list of Covid-19 myths and setting the record straight. Researched and collated by Emma Monk
Want to contribute? Do you have a myth you wish to debunk? Please get in touch.
1. There have only been 388 Covid-19 deaths among the under-60s in the UK.
This is a truly callous claim. It came from a report in various newspapers stating “388 people aged under 60 with ‘NO underlying health conditions’ have died of Covid-19 in England’s hospitals” in December 2020.
However, the list of pre-existing health conditions covered anything from autism to asthma, learning difficulties to angina, and fractured arms to glaucoma.
To discount the death from Covid-19 of someone who is autistic as a means of trying to minimise the severity of the disease is quite frankly sickening; as is discounting the death of anyone over 60. To date, over 80,000 people have died in the UK as a direct result of Covid-19, all leaving behind sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends, partners and loved ones. Discounting their deaths because they had learning difficulties or because they are over 60 is a dangerous path on which to travel. Back to the menu…
2. Covid-19 only kills people who were about to die anyway.
This is related to the previous claim and is regularly used to downplay the numbers. There are two very stark pieces of evidence that easily disprove this claim.
First – excess deaths. A five-year average of the number of people who die each week, month or year can be compared to the number of deaths in the same time period this year. The cause of death is irrelevant; it is simply a measure of how many more people died than you would have expected in a normal year. In 2020, around 73,000 more people died than the average of the previous five years. That’s 14 per cent above the average – the highest excess death number we’ve seen in the UK since 1940.
Second – intensive care unit (ICU) statistics. The Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICNARC) produces a regular report (here) on the characteristics of patients in intensive care in the UK. These are the most severely ill patients, with around 30 per cent not surviving. Of these patients in ICU, nearly 90 per cent were living fully unassisted lives prior to admission, with less than 0.5 per cent needing round-the-clock care. Less than 10 per cent were considered to have severe comorbidities (underlying health factors). These were people living fully active lives before contracting Covid-19.
3. In September, Covid-19 was the 19th highest cause of death. 19th!! Why are we not addressing the 18 others before it?
In September, deaths from Covid-19 were low following the initial lockdown and the warm summer months. Unfortunately, that was the calm before the storm. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS): “The coronavirus (Covid-19) was the leading cause of death in November 2020 for the first time since May 2020 in both England (accounting for 18.1 per cent of all deaths registered in November) and Wales (21.6 per cent of all deaths); looking at all deaths registered in January to November 2020, Covid-19 was the second most common cause of death in England and Wales (after dementia and Alzheimer’s disease).”
And we are still addressing the other causes. But none of them have the infection rates and mortality rates of Covid-19. They continue to be treated (as long as hospitals have capacity), as they have always been. Back to the menu…
4. Why are there many videos of empty hospitals?
Because many hospitals have had to close wards to increase their ICU capacity. An empty ward simply shows that staff have had to be deployed elsewhere and so the ward cannot remain open.
[Ed: In addition, Covid-deniers have been posting stock images of empty wards, some of them not even in the UK, to claim that Covid-19 is a hoax.]
5. Why are the Nightingale facilities being dismantled and closed?
Because, unfortunately, they were only ever a nice idea or PR stunt (depending on your viewpoint!). They were simply buildings with beds and some ventilators, but they were never equipped with staff – making them unusable. For a patient to be transferred there they needed to come with staff – which hospitals could not spare. Back to the menu…
6. Hospitals are always busy in the winter and none of them have reached full capacity yet?
Yes, hospitals are often busy in the winter, but NHS staff are reporting that they’ve never been hit like this. The capacity figures can be misleading as they are often quoted as a percentage of the available beds. Most ICUs have doubled or tripled their capacity over the last few months, by closing down other departments, theatres, etc and re-deploying staff. So, a hospital that usually has 50 ICU beds may now have 150 beds. If 135 of those beds are full, this is reported as being at 90-per-cent capacity – a figure seen regularly in winter – when actually they are at 270-per-cent capacity compared to normal.
The Financial Times statistician, John Burn-Murdoch has produced a very good animation comparing this winter to previous ones. The numbers for this winter are literally off the scale compared to the last six winters. Back to the menu…
7. How do we know whether people have died FROM Covid-19 as opposed to just WITH Covid-19?
There are many claims that people are dying following a positive Covid-19 test from causes unrelated to their Covid-19 infection.
Now, obviously, there will be a tiny number of people for whom that is the case. But the overwhelming majority of people who die within 28 days of getting a positive Covid-19 test are dying as a direct result of contracting Covid-19.
We have multiple sources that show this to be true:
- Excess deaths have mirrored the rise and fall in Covid-19 deaths pretty accurately, suggesting that these excess deaths are the result of people dying from Covid-19. If these people were dying from ‘regular’ causes and just happened to have had a positive Covid-19 test, there would not have been any excess deaths.
- Doctors are well trained in diagnosing disease and are very good at using all the information available to them to make the call on cause of death. When they fill out a death certificate, they write down the event that directly led to death, but they can also write down other contributing factors, including the presence of a positive Covid-19 test and other underlying factors. If a patient dies from cancer, while being positive for Covid-19, the cause will be cancer with Covid-19 mentioned. If a patient undergoing cancer treatment contracts Covid-19 and dies from the effects of Covid-19 (inability to breath, etc), then the cause of death is Covid-19 with cancer mentioned.
- The ONS analyses all these death certificates, looking at the direct cause and the other factors mentioned, and differentiates those who have died WITH and those who have died FROM Covid-19. This data is released every week, and shows that between 80 and 90 per cent of deaths where Covid-19 is mentioned on the death certificate are the direct result of the Covid-19 infection.
8. Why are deaths being marked as Covid-19 up to 28 days after a positive test if we only have to isolate for 10–14 days after testing positive?
Back in the spring, the easiest and quickest way to collate daily data on Covid-19 deaths was to compare anyone who had died with the database of those who had had a positive Covid-19 test. As testing was only being done on people with severe symptoms at that time, it was a reasonable assumption that those who tested positive and then passed away died from Covid-19.
However, by the summer, as fewer people were dying from Covid-19, and more people were ending up on the positive-test list, it became more likely that someone could die from something unrelated to a Covid-19 test that they may have had months before.
A review of the available data showed that 88 per cent of Covid-19 deaths occurred within 28 days of a positive test (96 per cent occurred within 60 days). The 28-day timescale was also being used in other countries for their reporting, so it was chosen as the UK cut-off.
The chance of anyone testing positive for Covid-19 and then dying of something unrelated within four weeks is vanishingly tiny. However, we do know that the 28-day cut-off underestimates Covid-19 deaths.
For those who do not need hospital treatment, the 10–14-day isolation covers the time when they are most infectious and so should stay at home. Back to the menu…
9. Why, when they have already been caught in August exaggerating Covid-19 death figures, do you not think they’d do it again?
August was when they made the decision to introduce the 28-day cut-off, which led to a number of deaths being removed from the official statistics. As we know from ONS data based on death certificates, the running total of ‘official’ Covid-19 deaths was already lower than the number of actual Covid-19 deaths. This decision actually made this problem even worse. So, far from ‘being caught exaggerating the figures’, they were making their underestimates even more pronounced. Back to the menu…
10. In 99.9 per cent of cases, people’s immune systems deal with the virus perfectly well.
I’ve seen many people trying to claim that over 99.9 per cent of people who catch the virus survive, but, first, the figure is simply not true and, second, dying is not the only adverse outcome.
Of those who contract Covid-19, around 1 per cent will die from it. This varies greatly depending on your age (over-80s have a 15-per-cent chance of dying, with the percentage for under-40s being very low).
However, a further 5 per cent require hospitalisation, and with treatment will survive. These patients would be unlikely to survive without hospital treatment, so the mortality rate increases as hospitals become overrun.
As well as simply looking at death or survival, the long-term health effects of Covid-19 need to be considered. According to the ‘ZOE COVID Symptom Study’: “Long Covid-19 affects around 10 per cent of 18–49-year-olds who become unwell with Covid-19, rising to 22 per cent of over-70s”, which is likely to add an increased burden to our health system and economy for months and years to come.
So, deaths are not the only thing to worry about. But even if they were, a 1-per-cent mortality rate in a highly transmissible disease is very much a reason to take it seriously. 1 per cent of the UK population would be 680,000 deaths … Back to the menu…
11. People die all the time. It’s a fact of life.
That’s true, but the sheer number of people who have died in the last 10 months from Covid-19 is hard to imagine. 80,000 people in the UK have died from Covid-19 since February 2020. That is the capacity of the Olympic Stadium.
12. Why enforce masks when they’ve been proven not to work?
Masks have not been ‘proven not to work’. A review of over 140 studies and academic papers found overwhelming evidence to support the wearing of masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19. It found:
- If at least 70 per cent of people wore masks, modelling suggests that combined with contact tracing, that would be sufficient to stop the epidemic growing.
- People are most infectious before developing symptoms making widespread mask use, whether you have symptoms or not, absolutely vital.
- All types of material are helpful at preventing the spread of the disease from an infected carrier, although some are better than others.
- Masks offer some protection to the wearer, although the primary benefit is in preventing infectious people from spreading the virus.
They also found an American economic analysis suggesting universal mask wearing could add 1 trillion dollars to the US GDP. Back to the menu…
13. Masks do more harm than good.
There have been suggestions that mask wearing would lead to people getting complacent about other measures such as distancing and handwashing. Similar arguments about risk behaviour were made about motorbike helmets, seatbelts, and ski helmets when they were introduced and were equally unfounded. Observational data during the pandemic has shown that mask wearers are better at hand hygiene, distancing and reduced face touching. There is also data to suggest that mask wearing acts as a cue to others to keep their distance.
There has also been a suggestion that masks can cause bacterial pneumonia, but this is simply not true. There appear to be no records showing it happening anywhere, despite the claim, and doctors have explained that the only thing that ends up on your face mask is what you breath out. For your exhaled breath to contain pneumonia-causing bacteria it would have to be in your lungs already. Back to the menu…
14. I know someone who always wore a mask and they still caught Covid-19, so they obviously don’t work.
The primary benefit of mask wearing is to protect those around you. There has been shown to be some protective effect on the wearer, but not as strong as the effect they have on protecting those around you.
No measure will be 100 per cent effective in stopping the pandemic, but multiple measures used together are our best shot.
15. Lockdowns don’t work.
Covid-19 can only spread by people mixing. It cannot spread without a human involved. So just on a purely logical level, staying at home as much as possible will prevent the virus from spreading.
There is a time lag between restrictions being put in place and the effects being seen in either hospital admissions or deaths recorded. It takes up to 14 days for symptoms to appear (average length five days after infection), an average of 3-10 days between symptoms and hospital admissions, and an average of two weeks between symptoms and death.
Looking at the first lockdown in the spring, you can see that hospital admissions started falling after around 9 days, while deaths started falling about a week later. This is entirely in line with the timings you would expect to see if it were the lockdown restrictions that were limiting cases.
The second lockdown in November was much looser, so did not have the same dramatic effect that the first lockdown did. The time lags were still indicative of the restrictions having a significant effect on slowing the spread of Covid-19. Unfortunately, the effects were quickly wiped out by shopping and mixing in the run up to Christmas.
16. Lockdowns have completely trashed the economy.
Lockdowns do have a major effect on the economy, as retail, manufacturing, hospitality, live events etc., all have to stop.
However, it is not as straightforward as that. Had there not been a lockdown, retail, hospitality and live events would still have been hit hard by people choosing to stay at home for fear of catching the virus, and by people being unable to work through sickness, and sadly, death.
One of the arguments put forward to delaying lockdown back in spring was to ‘keep the economy going as long as possible’, but unfortunately this argument didn’t play out well.
Analysis has shown that the countries that got the spread of the virus under control the most effectively, often by locking down hard and fast, ended up with a far lesser impact on their economy. The UK was one of the worst performing in both the economy and number of deaths, as shown in this graph from Covid-19: The global crisis — in data.
The argument that you have to balance health with wealth is a false dichotomy. A healthy population is intrinsically linked to a healthy economy and you cannot have one without the other. Back to the menu…
17. Scientists forcing lockdowns on us predicted there would be 500,000 deaths in the UK, but they were wrong – we never should have locked down based on their data.
Neil Ferguson published a modelling report in March that showed if we took no steps at all to curb the spread of the virus, we could see 550,000 deaths over 2 years as a result. The point of the modelling was to decide which steps would be most effective in suppressing the virus and saving lives. Many steps were then taken to limit the spread, including social distancing, encouraging handwashing, closing mass gatherings, closing schools and other lockdown measures. All these interventions played a role in slowing the spread of the virus, limiting the number of people who became infected and therefore the number of people who died.
The fact that 550,000 people did not die does NOT mean those steps were not needed. It shows the opposite. Back to the menu…
18. But what about Sweden? They didn’t lockdown and they were ok.
Sweden chose a quite different route to dealing with the pandemic and was hailed as a success by many lockdown sceptics early on. They chose to ban large gatherings, close their airports, move high schools and universities to distance learning, and encourage working from home, but kept junior schools, non-essential shops, bars, and restaurants open, albeit with social distancing guidelines in place.
Unfortunately, Sweden ended up with one of the highest per capita death tolls in the world AND took a greater financial hit than other similar economies.
19. Lockdowns have stopped us from being able to develop herd immunity.
Some people were calling for a ‘herd immunity’ strategy from early on. The UK and Sweden appear to have been the only countries planning to follow that path.
The idea was to protect the vulnerable and allow the virus to spread through the rest of the population, allowing them to build up immunity. If enough people have immunity, the population is said to have ‘herd immunity’ – where people are protected by the fact that others are immune, and the disease won’t spread.
However, there has never been a human virus that has reached a high enough level of herd immunity to protect the vulnerable, without a vaccine. Even if it were possible, it would require at least 70 per cent of the population to have been infected and developed immunity. As this virus has a mortality rate of one per cent, it would lead to around 500,000 people dying in the UK alone. The evidence on whether you end up with long term immunity from contracting the disease is also not clear.
Sweden hoped that their light touch lockdown would have at least increased their levels of immunity, however widespread studies of antibody levels have shown that only 17 per cent of residents in Stockholm had immunity by the summer, with levels of only four per cent elsewhere in Sweden. London also showed around 17 per cent with five per cent elsewhere in England. Back to the menu…
20. Lockdowns have huge impact on mental health.
Most people are justifiably concerned about the effects of lockdown on the mental health of the population. The ONS (Office for National Statistics) routinely survey people to get a snapshot of how the nation is feeling. It is clear that people are feeling less happy, less satisfied with life and more anxious than they were in February 2020. What is less clear is whether this change is as a result of the lockdowns themselves or a result of the pandemic in general. For example, anxiety levels were at their highest in March, improving during the summer. However, the lockdown in November did not appear to impact the levels at all. They have gone up again at the start of January, but whether that is down the worsening news regarding new variants, overcrowded hospitals or the prospect of the lockdown, is hard to tell.
21. Lockdowns have caused a massive increase in self-harm and suicides.
There have been concerns regarding the levels of self-harm and suicides that could be caused by lockdowns, with many mental health organisations warning of severe impacts on mental health from loneliness, isolation and money concerns. However, it is hard to quantify these effects. Data shown here looks at the number of hospital admissions for self-harm and self-poisoning each month between April and September 2020 compared to the average for each month in the last 5 years. April, May and June (during lockdown) all saw lower than average numbers, with numbers being slightly higher than average during the summer months. This does not support the theory that lockdowns caused an increase in self harming.
A Study by Manchester University looked at suicide figures from established ‘real-time surveillance’ systems in several parts of England, comparing the months pre-lockdown (January-March 2020) to post-lockdown (April-August 2020). The average number of suicides per month varied but there was no evidence of a rise post-lockdown. They caveated the report by saying that the study only covered parts of England (population of around nine million), and they could not rule out a future rise as the economic impact of the pandemic continues to take its toll.
A British Medical Journal editorial examined the available data from across the world relating to suicide rates during lockdown and concluded “Nevertheless, a reasonably consistent picture is beginning to emerge from high income countries. Reports suggest either no rise in suicide rates (Massachusetts, USA; Victoria, Australia; England) or a fall (Japan, Norway) in the early months of the pandemic. The picture is much less clear in low- income countries, where the safety nets available in better resourced settings may be lacking.”
There is absolutely no question people are suffering as a result of the lockdowns. But it is really important to also understand that without the lockdowns, the suffering may have been just as much of a problem as many more people would have lost loved ones, and the economy would likely have been equally badly hit (see section above on economy). Back to the menu…
22. Lockdown meant hospitals stopped treating anyone else. They were only interested in Covid-19 Patients.
This is a common misconception. The hospitals did not ‘close’ during lockdown. They continued to treat anyone who needed emergency treatment, as long as they had the staff and ICU (Intensive Care Unit) capacity. Non-emergency, routine surgery needed to be cancelled as staff were deployed to other areas of the hospital. Surgery always comes with a risk of requiring intensive care, so cancelling these types of surgeries ensured the ICUs were available for critical patients.
Once a hospital reaches capacity, whether with Covid-19 patients, flu patients, or stroke and heart attacks, then the ability to treat anyone disappears, regardless of the need. So, an ICU full of Covid-19 patients means there is no room for the car crash victim or meningitis case. This is why the primary reason given for lockdowns is to prevent the hospitals becoming overrun with Covid-19 patients. Keeping numbers down is the best way to save lives from any cause – not just from Covid-19.
Dr Pimenta illustrates it nicely:
It is worth noting that in countries which dealt swiftly and successfully with their Covid-19 outbreaks, access to healthcare for other reasons was not impacted on the scale we have seen in the UK. In May, the World Health Organisation (WHO) sent a survey to 194 ministries of Health, of whom 163 responded. The results showed that less than 50 per cent of countries saw disruption to their cancer services, emergency dental care, diabetes care, asthma services or palliative care. In the UK, the fifth richest nation and the second most pandemic prepared country (on paper!) we saw widespread disruption to our health services. This is more a reflection of our poor response and long-term poor funding of our health service, than a direct consequence of lockdown. Back to the menu…
23. Lockdown caused more deaths than Covid-19.
Some headlines have claimed that the lockdown itself was going to cause ‘more deaths than covid-19’. However, there does not appear to be any factual basis to these claims – other than the opinion of the journalists!
Many papers ran with the headline in July that an ONS report had estimated that lockdown would result in an additional 200,000 deaths. However, when looking at the report itself, this is only half the story. It estimates the number of deaths due to delayed healthcare, suicides, domestic abuse, people being scared to go to hospital etc., following a lockdown. These were around 200,000 in the long term, in addition to the 45,000 predicted Covid-19 deaths at the time. Then, the report compared this to the number of deaths estimated if no lockdown had been implemented. These were estimated at 450,000 Covid-19 deaths and more than 1,000,000 deaths as a direct result of people not being able to access hospital care due to over-run hospitals.
So, although the effects of reduced hospital care during lockdown could lead to significant lives lost in the future, NOT locking down would likely have led to around five times that number in non-Covid-19 deaths, and double that number in Covid-19 deaths. Back to the menu…
24. Can’t we just protect the vulnerable and let everyone else live life as normal, like they suggested with the Great Barrington Declaration?
The Great Barrington Declaration was written by 3 scientists and funded by right wing climate change denier Charles Koch and supposedly signed up to by 8000 scientists. However, many of these have been proven to be fake signatories, including Dr Sciency McScienceface and Dr Wibbleton Wibbler! Anyone could sign it with no authentication or confirmation of their credentials needed. It has been widely discredited by the scientific and medical communities.
The idea was a vague notion that you could somehow lock away the ‘vulnerable’ while allowing everyone else to carry on as normal. There were no suggestions on how this would actually work in principle. Our lives are highly interconnected, as illustrated below, with every visit to buy food, collect medicine or receive care leading to the vulnerable coming into contact with those ‘carrying on as normal’.
There are just over 10 million people in the UK in the extremely high risk categories (over 70s and Extremely Clinically Vulnerable), with a further 17.2 million considered moderately high risk (50-70 year olds and those with underlying conditions that put them ‘at risk’ from Covid-19). The idea that 14-40 per cent of the UK population could be kept completely shielded from the rest of the population is just simply unworkable. Not to mention the massive hit the economy would take from the working aged vulnerable people being unable to work, or any of the vulnerable being unable to go to garden ientres, shops, restaurants etc.
It is also worth mentioning that although the risk of death from Covid-19 in the younger age groups is low, there is a lot of evidence coming out now of long-term health risks, known as ‘Long-Covid’, associated with even mild cases of the disease. The long-term effects on the healthcare system and the economy are likely to be significant, and the more you allow the virus to spread, the more people are likely to end up in this category.
In addition, the more people you allow to contract Covid-19 the higher the chances of new, more transmissible (catching) strains of Covid-19 developing, as we have seen with the new B117 variant.