All names and locations in this article have been changed.

The UK is among the countries hardest hit by Covid-19. Now, a herculean vaccination programme is bringing the end of the UK epidemic into view. But some still steadfastly refuse to take the jab. UPF Lund introduces the anti-vaxxers and explores their impact on the fight against the virus in the UK.

“World-Beating”

To say that Covid-19 has hit the UK hard is an understatement. 

On 29 January 2020, the first case was reported in the UK in the city of York. Now, fourteen months on, there have been more than four million cases and one-hundred and twenty-five thousand deaths. The British economy is on its knees, still 10% smaller than its pre-pandemic levels. The political dynamics between Westminster and Holyrood have massively shifted. All of this, whilst the virus has ravaged the very poorest and most vulnerable communities across the country. 

But where there is dark, there can also be light. 

The UK became the first country in the world to roll out a vaccine programme, beginning on 8 December 2020. Now, the UK is running off into the proverbial sunset. Out of a population of sixty-six million, more than twenty million people have now had their first dose of a vaccine. In terms of the overall percentage of the population vaccinated, the UK is third only to Israel and the United Arab Emirates. 

There is a real sense of optimism in the UK. But there are still those who blankly refuse to be vaccinated. 

Middle England, Middle Ground

Tucked away on the south-east coast of England is the town of Stoneacre. It is fairly indicative of Middle England – that part of the country where the average person is financially comfortable, more socially-conservative and, with that, votes Conservative. 

Life in places like Stoneacre plods along, so to speak. Events elsewhere in the UK, no matter how great or impactful, felt somehow distant there. The pandemic has changed that.

Whether the people of Stoneacre like it or not, Covid-19 has invaded their peace. Lockdowns, social-distancing and the rapid expansion of the British state have been felt by absolutely everyone across the UK – from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. 

People in places like Stoneacre generally prefer small government. The response to the pandemic has not gone down well. But the resentment towards this new normal is not being born out on the streets, in letters and emails to MPs, nor in (virtual) public forums. It is all playing out behind the scenes on social media – in this instance, Facebook and WhatsApp.

Scapes like this one are typical the length and breadth of Middle England (Photo: Mark Percy, Wikimedia Commons)

Thinking for Yourself

COVID TRUTHERS and Vaccine Talk – the former on WhatsApp, the latter on Facebook – are two such groups. Many hundreds, if not thousands, of others have sprung up across social media platforms throughout the course of the pandemic. 

These are two examples at opposite ends of the anti-vax spectrum that has developed across the UK – COVID TRUTHERS being the extreme. These vary from those who have genuine unanswered questions about the range of Covid vaccines now in use across the UK, to those who believe that some sort of deep-state conspiracy is afoot.

Despite the chasm that separates the anarchy of COVID TRUTHERS and the uncertainty of Vaccine Talk, one theme was apparent, in post after post and comment after comment: people feel that they have somehow lost their independence of thought during the pandemic. Comments like “they’re [the British government] telling us what to think”, “How is it deadly? I had it and it was like a winter cold” and “This is all about subversion for big tech” were all well-received comments on COVID TRUTHERS.

But amidst the anger and the push for the return of “freedom of thought”, something else recurred: fear.

Coming Over the Horizon

Over the course of the last decade, the UK has lurched from one crisis to the next. It began with a major double-dip recession and the resultant austerity policies that drove millions into working poverty. Then, in 2016, along came the Brexit vote, unleashing political chaos, ratcheting up societal tensions and hitting the pockets of many. No sooner had the UK finally unpicked its relations with Brussels then the pandemic struck.

For a decade, it has been one trouble to the next, all of which have consumed most of the available air in Westminster. The pandemic, however, has vehemently projected the UK’s latest crisis into the lives of all across the country, including in places like Stoneacre.

One thing that was prevalent in both COVID TRUTHERS and Vaccine Talk was the desire for normality and, even more keenly, stability. There was a great want for life as it was before Brexit led to politics forcing its way into the lives of all in the UK – and before the pandemic necessitated the rapid expansion of the state. 

All of this fed into the idea that the British state is trying to use the virus to covertly subvert the British populous into some sort of “new normal”. Some in COVID TRUTHERS even went so far as to question whether or not Covid-19 even exists, or whether science itself has been suckered in by the “deep state”. 

However oxymoronic it might sound, those who had bought into this idea to any degree actually looked to those in charge for some sort of proof. 

The Powers That Be

In the UK, the Conservatives govern. They are leading the fight against Covid-19 and rolling out the vaccination programme. Yet the MPs who are most critical of lockdowns and societal restrictions are also Conservatives. Chief among them is Desmond Swayne.

Desmond Swayne’s parliamentary portrait. The MP for New Forest West is known for his divisive views and open scepticism of lockdowns. (Photo: Chris McAndrew, Wikimedia Commons)

Elected to the English constituency of New Forest West in 1997, Swayne is well-known for causing controversy on all manner of topics with some of his more divisive views. The pandemic is no different. 

In January 2021, Swayne caused uproar – even amongst his own colleagues – when he appeared on The Richie Allen Show, a web show known for peddling misinformation and, at times, outright bigotry. During his appearance, Swayne stated that: “I accept that there are huge question marks about the validity of the testing and some of the numbers [on deaths] we’ve been getting.”

To those in COVID TRUTHERS, in particular, this was catnip. 

As Swayne is a long-serving MP who has previously held ministerial positions, his words were seized upon as evidence of a conspiracy. One person in COVID TRUTHERS perhaps summarised it best when they said “The state admitted it! [They] had to admit [it eventually]. Now we know what [they’re] really planning”.

Swayne is not the only one to have caused a stir. Esther McVey, the English MP for Tatton, called, and continues to call for, the end of lockdown, arguing that the measures are “really not acceptable”. Similarly, former Prime Minister Theresa May’s open questioning of the science behind the November Lockdown in England also added fuel to the fire. As unpopular as she might have been when in office, her status as a living former Prime Minister does appear to still carry weight.

The Roaring Housecat

The British anti-vax movement is loud. It is extremely vocal and highly active on social media platforms. But it is a small minority. 

Between them, COVID TRUTHERS and Vaccine Talk had less than three-thousand members. The leading UK anti-vax and vaccine-sceptic groups on Facebook had a combined membership smaller than the population of Monaco. 

There are certainly those who believe that they are engaged in some sort of bloodless war against the British state, but they are a minority. They are less of an English Lion and more of an English Housecat.

Recent research suggests that two-thirds of Britons want to be vaccinated. The sheer number of people who have now had their first dose – now more than twenty-three million – speaks for itself. Combined with this is the fact that the British government has openly said how surprising the high levels of compliance with restrictions in all three lockdowns has been and continues to be – as well as the adherence to testing and self-isolation rules.

The UK is in the mire. There are no two ways about it. But, with anti-vaxxers being in the minority, there is tangible light at the end of a very long tunnel.

Luke Sandford