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New Covid variant, same media scare stories

The media is engaged in a Covid doom-loop. Credit: Getty

May 21, 2024 - 7:00am

The UK is facing a surge in Covid-19 infections and hospitalisations this summer as a new variant seems “to evade immunity”. So went the reports this weekend about the new “FLiRT” variant, which is fast becoming the dominant Covid strain.

If this sounds a little familiar, your memory is not playing tricks on you. It is only a few months ago that many of the same outlets were reporting how “the UK could soon see its highest-ever rate of Covid infections thanks to the new variant JN.1”.

Oddly enough, just as those reports were circulating, the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) was reporting that the (relatively modest) winter surge in cases was already receding. Indeed, hospitalisations from Covid peaked at the end of December 2023 and decreased steadily for the next couple of months.

So should we be worried about the latest rise in infections? Well, this is the official summary from the UKHSA: “SARS-CoV-2 positivity increased slightly to 9.0% compared with 8.2% in the previous week […] Covid-19 hospitalisations remained stable at 3.13 per 100,000 compared with 3.21 per 100,000 in the previous week. Covid-19 ICU admissions remained low and stable at 0.08 per 100,000 in week 19.” Terrifying!

To put that 0.08 statistic into context, in early 2021 the ICU rate reached 2.59 per 100,000 (i.e. nearly 30 times the current rate).

The media seem to have something of a doom loop, in which they periodically recycle the same scary headlines about Covid every few months. On one level, this is understandable: all press outlets have pages to fill and a headline like “Covid cases go up a little bit but nothing to worry about” is probably not going to get a lot of clicks. However, a consequence is that too many people are still living in fear of a virus that, even at its peak, was of little serious risk to the vast majority of the population.

Even less excusable are the irresponsible public health messages that are typically included in these reports. Readers this weekend are told: “Public health guidelines, such as wearing masks […] continue to be important measures to reduce the risk of infection.” Surely it is not too much to expect doctors and reporters to be aware of the authoritative Cochrane review of the evidence which concluded that “wearing a mask may make little to no difference in how many people caught a flu-like illness/Covid-like illness”?

What’s more, almost every article pushes the importance of Covid booster vaccines despite the evidence that vaccination has at best limited impact on infection and transmission, particularly for the more recent variants. Many of the articles about the current variant quote Dr Gregory P. Gasic as claiming that “updated vaccines and boosters are vital” in combatting these variants. But in the very same sentence, Dr Gasic admits that the efficacy of boosters against these variants “isn’t entirely clear”. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

Of course, no one knows for sure what will happen to Covid infections over the next few months. But it seems we can be certain that news outlets will continue to publish scaremongering headlines about Covid with little basis in reality. Additionally, we can expect that the experts will continue to promote the same costly public health measures which have proved so ineffective over the past four years.


David Paton is a Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School.

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Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago

There is no surprise that the media push stories such as this. COVID still induces “clicks” even now.

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin M

Indeed, otherwise why would they publish this article?

Stuart Sutherland
Stuart Sutherland
1 month ago

Here we go again!

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

The reference here is to some local paper in Bristol. The clinician reference – Gasic – links to some product he’s involved in marketing to help with appointment management. Point being the local reporter is using a doctor from god knows where to apply some credibility veneer to his article. It’s not exactly the Medical Director of NHS splashed across the front the Mail saying this is it.
Of course this Unherd Author flags the standard problem with daily media – ‘it bleeds it leads’. UnHerd not immune to that too.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

Remember those toothpaste ads with men in white lab coats?

Robbie K
Robbie K
1 month ago

Of course, no one knows for sure what will happen to Covid infections over the next few months.

Says a sceptical Professor of Industrial Economics with his own axe to grind. It’s no wonder this site attracts the attention of the GDI.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Put your own axe down, lest you chop off more than just your own feet.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 month ago
Reply to  Robbie K

But you have been entirely discredited

Pedro the Exile
Pedro the Exile
1 month ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Of course, no one knows for sure what will happen to Covid infections over the next few months.
well-is this a true statement or not?

Robbie K
Robbie K
1 month ago

Of course it is, which is why the whole piece is self indulgent nonsense straight from that vile cringe website The Conservative Woman.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
28 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Can’t be too careful, eh, Roberta?

Jeff Dudgeon
Jeff Dudgeon
1 month ago

In a local hospital last week and there were numerous notices telling people to wear masks.
Nobody, neither staff nor visitors, was wearing one. Best to remove them

james elliott
james elliott
1 month ago

We really need Nuremberg mk II.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
1 month ago

Will we ever find a cure for the common cold?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

Let’s lock down…. Now!

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

So should we be worried about the latest rise in infections? 
No. We should be worried about the govt’s potential reactions to the rise while keeping an eye on the virus itself. This movie has played before. Covid was not the mass killer that the fear artists envisioned.

Nanu Mitchell
Nanu Mitchell
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Take a look at who (“experts”) trousered how much, from who.

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
1 month ago

Thanks to the GMO’s that are repeatedly pumped into your Bodies, the virus has mutated to the state that it has reached its peak infectiousness. What happens after that? It will turn very virulent again against a highly vaccinated immune deficient population and all hell will break out.
My advice to the Government who appear to be in complete denial is to stock up well on cheap Anti Virals such as Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine, you know the ones they poo pooed in favour of mega expensive Paxlovid and Remdesivir which have turned out to be wanting.
Nature will decide what happens here and not these money grubbing Pharmaceutical companies who I suspect knew this would be the outcome.

Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
1 month ago

And we will continue to ignore it.
Can’t fool me twice.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
28 days ago

How about we create areas for the COVID sissies to quarantine themselves and let the big boys and girls get on with the business of living?