An official UK government web page about COVID-19 has been shared tens of thousands of times on social media as supposed “evidence” for a conspiracy theory that politicians are overhyping the coronavirus crisis and using it to control the public.
The page has had big boosts from online communities dedicated to spreading debunked conspiracy theories about 5G mobile networks, the “New World Order” and “chemtrails” — the false belief that governments pump chemical agents into the sky to control the public.
A post written by Public Health England for the official GOV.UK website says “as of 19 March 2020, COVID-19 is no longer considered to be a high consequence infectious disease (HCID) in the UK”, after it was initially classified as such in January.
A HCID is a category of diseases with extremely high death rates like Ebola virus, Middle East Respiratory Fever (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
The coronavirus is “highly transmissible between humans as demonstrated by the speed of the pandemic, but it isn’t the most deadly of pathogens in terms of the infectious dose required to be lethal,” according to Professor Brendan Wren of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“Only 1% of infected humans succumb to the infection. This compares to, for example, 11% for SARS1 and 50% for Ebola” he told BuzzFeed News. As a result, the disease was downgraded for scientific research purposes.
However, Wren continued: “This slight downgrading doesn’t detract from the seriousness of Covid-19 infection.” He pointed out that the ease with which the virus spreads means it it has infected and killed far more people than recent outbreaks of SARS and Ebola.
The Public Health England post does set out all these details lower down the page, but internet conspiracy theorists have highlighted the opening sentence and circulated it in a misleading way.
A post by the Facebook page Energy Therapy, liked by 2 million people, shares a screenshot of the government page and says:
“If COVID-19 is no longer considered to be a high consequence infectious disease (HCID), at least in the UK, according to the UK government's own website, why do we have a continuous fear-based narrative from the MAINSTREAM MEDIA that things will ONLY GET WORSE?”
Conspiracy theorist David Icke who claims the coronavirus “is A Carefully Choreographed PLANDEMIC” has also shared the screenshot.
The misinformation got an extra boost when it was written up by the Washington Times, a right-wing American news website, under the headline “Before lockdown, Britain quietly downgraded status of virus threat”.
The article, which has been liked and shared over 20,000 times, has been seized upon by conspiracy theorists as supposed proof of governments admitting the disease has been overhyped.
The Facebook groups where the Washington Times article was interacted with the most times included “Chemtrails Global Skywatch” and “Exposing The New World Order”.
The captions on posts accompanying the article included “tyranny in progress” and “the COVID-19 virus did not meet the criteria to qualify as a “high consequence infectious disease but they STILL locked it down - STILL think it is NOT about CONTROL?”
The UK government post was also written up by right-wing US news site The Daily Wire, with the headline “British Government Lowered Its Estimate Of Severity Of Coronavirus LAST WEEK”.
This article and headline have also been used on social media as supposed evidence of fearmongering by governments
The misinformation has also been shared by “antivax” groups in the US, and UK Facebook groups sharing debunked claims about 5G mobile phone networks supposedly spreading the coronavirus..
In the three weeks since the government post was uploaded on March 19, the UK has imposed strict social distancing measures to curb the spread of the virus, and prime minister Boris Johnson is in intensive care having contracted it.
"HCID is a technical classification with no current implications on how the government is responding to the coronavirus outbreak," a UK government spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
“We have always said we will take the right measures at the right time — based on the latest scientific evidence — to slow the spread of the virus, protect vulnerable people, reduce demand on our NHS and save lives.”
The original Public Health England web page was shared even more widely on Facebook posts in languages other than English, especially German, Russian and Romanian.
BuzzFeed News has previously reported on how Facebook has struggled to get a grip on misinformation about the coronavirus that goes viral in other languages.
The misinformation about the UK government’s response to the coronavirus is especially prevalent in Serbian.
A story was originally picked up in the Balkan country by a doctor called Jovana Stojković, who usually uses her social media accounts to oppose mandatory vaccinations.
It was then picked up in an article on the news website Webtribune, which has been liked and shared thousands of times on Facebook.