23/10/2020 06:00 BST

I’m An NHS Doctor. Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories Are Making Our Job Harder

This is the most challenging or frightening crisis of my 31-year career. And hoaxmongers talking about a ‘plandemic’ and accusing doctors of murdering patients aren’t helping.

Through the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, I worked in acute adult medicine at the hospital front door and on the wards just like colleagues around the country who put their own health, and in some cases lives, on the line to keep the show on the road. In my 31 years as an NHS doctor, I have never witnessed anything as challenging and unaccustomed, as frightening for staff, or as distressing for their families. 

We are professionals and looking after the sick is our job. We did it willingly and will do so again, mindful that key workers do remain safely employed unlike many across Britain. We were often embarrassed by all the clapping and food parcels – after all, we’d prefer adequate resources, staffing, access to Covid-19 testing, PPE and respectful treatment by the government than gestures. 

We’d also prefer it if there weren’t people spreading hostile misinformation alleging that Covid-19 is a ‘scamdemic’ or global hoax that doesn’t make people sick or kill them.

When we’ve seen serial failings in the government’s pandemic communications and poor news management has made journalists’ jobs harder, it’s not surprising we find ourselves in an environment where rumours, conspiracy theories and misinformation about coronavirus have taken hold.

But shopfloor NHS staff and managers see and hear this stuff every day, and much of it is insulting, demoralising and inaccurate. If we try to correct it or argue back, we find ourselves being accused (by people with no clinical training or experience) of lying, and find our own jobs and experience being explained to us. The recent #pandemicisoverUK hashtag is the latest of many examples. 

Clapping for us has been replaced by crapping on our reputations, professionalism and integrity.

Conspiracy theories seem to have replaced the clapping, and NHS staff like me are left wondering of the social media keyboard warriors, libertarian commentators writers and radio shock jocks: why? Why are you doing this?

Bolstered by a handful of contrarian but totemic biomedical scientists and medics and editorial lines which confirm their biases, we see a range of assertions which help no-one. They all have a counter-narrative but it gets tiresome battling and debunking them when you have a day job trying to help sick people. 

Here’s just a few examples of what I’ve seen. I’ve read that ‘hospitals are half-empty and the staff are kicking their heels’, that ‘most of the people certified as dying from Covid-19 did not have it and weren’t killed by it’ (in effect accusing doctors of breaching professional codes en masse and lying about people we were looking after as though we’re a whole team of Harold Shipmans), and I’ve read the lie that ‘90% of Covid-19 tests are false positives and these people were never infected, or infectious’ when, in reality, false negatives are a much bigger problem. I’ve heard too the gross, slanderous distortion that “most of the infections are caught in hospital anyway due to your negligence”.

NurPhoto via Getty Images
Thousands of demonstrators take part in Unite for Freedom rally in Trafalgar Square to protest against the restrictions imposed by the Government to control the spread of coronavirus, lockdowns, wearing face masks and vaccines, on 26 September, 2020 in London, England. The protesters urged MPs to abolish the Coronavirus Act 2020, which is due to be reviewed in Parliament next week. (Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

I’ve also heard repeatedly that ‘what doctors are calling Covid is just other seasonal infections like flu or a cold and no more deadly,’ when we know from experience and research that Covid-19 has a distinct pattern of presentation and hits people harder – not to mention flu has never killed 620 frontline staff, unless you think they were fake death certificates too?

Where it gets more vicious is when the clapping is replaced by accusations that we ‘murdered’ care home residents and ‘sent them to their deaths’, that GP surgeries are offering no consultations (despite them seeing high volumes online and on the phone following central guidance about avoiding large numbers of face to face consultations).  And remember, if you accuse responsible mainstream news media of lying, you are in effect accusing their sources – clinical staff and public health teams – of lying too.

As I write this, we’re running into the usual increase in attendances and admissions we’d see at this time of the year, alongside a big imperative to catch up on all the work postponed or cancelled in the spring. But we’re also seeing a gradual upsurge in Covid-19 admissions – with all the signs, symptoms, tests and sickness patterns we remember so well from the first time. That means people are tired. Large numbers of medics are self-isolating or off sick with Covid symptoms, and around one in three nurses is reportedly considering quitting. There have been too many reports of staff who spoke out over PPE, testing or staffing gaps being silenced or threatened. Now we are gearing up for several tough months of Covid and non-Covid challenges, and we have people telling us the virus is fake? If you want to damage the wellbeing of the very people we rely on to care for the sick, this is a great way to do it. 

If you want to damage the wellbeing of the very people we rely on to care for the sick, this is a great way to do it.

I believe much of the animus comes not only from the actions of an inept and untrustworthy Cabinet and special advisors, and that more comes from totally understandable concern about repeated lockdown, jobs, livelihood, the economy and restrictions on individual freedoms.

But it was never NHS staff in charge of lockdown decisions. And it wasn’t frontline NHS staff who engineered a decade of underfunding of social care and public health, or who failed to ensure we had adequate pandemic infrastructure in place. Nor were we the ones slow out of the traps to react to the World Health Organisation’s declaration of a global health emergency and miss serial opportunities.  Quite the reverse – we stepped up, and quickly.

Clapping for us has been replaced by crapping on our reputations, professionalism and integrity. I wish the keyboard agitators would realise this and would instead start from a position of understanding that we are acting in good faith, and know our own jobs. And I wish they knew their relentless diet of disparaging disinformation is only compounding the strains of what is already a difficult job.

David Oliver is an NHS physician and writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mancunianmedic

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