Smirking as she strolls towards the camera, Fiona Hine is cheered by a waiting gaggle of supporters. Among them, Piers Corbyn – brother of the former Labour leader, Jeremy – tells her “well done”, greeting her warmly with a pat on the back.
The 36-year-old’s achievement? She had just appeared in court and pleaded guilty to criminal damage at an anti-vax protest in London two days earlier after throwing a red paint balloon.
The conviction, at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in September last year, would not be her last. On 15 December, she was found guilty on a further three charges relating to breaking lockdown restrictions in 2020 by taking part in gatherings.
And now it can be revealed that the former events manager – an avowed anti-vaxxer and lockdown sceptic who has boasted she is willing to die in her fight for “freedom” – is behind a “mass non-compliance” demonstration being planned in the capital this month, indicating her previous encounters with law enforcement have not deterred her.
As the NHS battles against Omicron, The Independent has delved into the world of the anti-vax movement undermining those efforts. Hine is a key ringleader – peddling her views to a following of more than 10,000 on encrypted messaging service Telegram.
It comes as Boris Johnson last week condemned anti-vaxxers’ “mumbo jumbo” on social media. “What a tragedy that you’ve got all this pressure on the NHS, all the difficulties that our doctors and nurses are experiencing and you’ve got people out there spouting complete nonsense about vaccination,” he said on Thursday. “They are totally wrong and I think it’s time that I, government, call them out on what they’re doing.”
Vaccines approved for use in the UK have been declared safe, yet the uptake figures are stark. Last Tuesday, as the prime minister made a fresh call for people to get their booster vaccination, he explained nearly 9 million people eligible had not had one. He demonstrated the consequence – as many as 90 per cent of those in intensive care with Covid had not had their booster, with over 60 per cent in the same situation not having had a vaccination at all.
Last month, ministers condemned the actions of anti-vaxxers who stormed an NHS testing site in Milton Keynes, shouting abuse at staff. Corbyn – a prominent anti-vaxxer – was pictured elsewhere in the town addressing protesters who were said to have forcibly entered a theatre foyer.
There have been 176,035 deaths in the UK where Covid was mentioned on the death certificate, according to the Office for National Statistics. Meanwhile, data from the UK Health Security Agency has suggested that the booster vaccine is 88 per cent effective at preventing people from ending up in hospital with the virus.
And still, in the face of all this, anti-vaxxers continue to wage their misguided campaign. Social media is a fertile breeding ground. A report by King’s College London (KCL) found that about a quarter of those surveyed in the UK in November 2020 said they had seen or heard Covid anti-vax messages on social media. Dr Daniel Allington, senior lecturer in social and cultural artificial intelligence at KCL, said: “One of the things our research has consistently found is that people who get their information about Covid from social media platforms tend to be less confident about the vaccine, their vaccination rate is lower, and their rate of compliance with non-medical interventions, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, is also lower.”
This month’s protest is ostensibly against the prospect of fresh restrictions but is being organised by Hine, who has repeatedly spoken out against vaccines – falsely likening their use to genocide.
In one Telegram post unearthed by The Independent, she wrote just weeks ago: “I am not naive and I do not deny what is coming, what has been inevitable from the start, but it is no one else’s responsibility to do something that YOU believe is the answer. And it will be down to every individual to decide how far they will go, how hard they will fight, and who is willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. I know I will be with millions of others willing to die or be imprisoned fighting for humanity and freedom.”
In recent weeks, she has been posting on her Telegram channel – under the name “Fiona Rose Diamond” – about the 22 January demonstration dubbed a “world wide rally for freedom”, set to be held at a yet to be disclosed location in the capital. One post read: “Boris knows that no one in this country needs his permission to do anything. He and his tyrannical government may choose to lockdown again, but will we comply? NO – WE WILL NOT COMPLY!
“The tide is TURNING, and they know it. They KNOW you know it too. They know YOU have the power. They know WE have the numbers. They know we stand STRONG. Once again we stand with millions across the world, let’s get millions on the streets of London and demonstrate MASS NON COMPLIANCE.”
Comments on the 21 December post about the rally included one follower who wrote: “Who is organising? We need a change of route … finish with a big road jam...”
Hine replied: “I organise the Bi-Monthly World Wide Rally For Freedom in London and every time we have a different route, and we have something a little different too, along the way.”
She added: “And out of five of the world wide rallies in London so far I’ve been arrested at two. And last year before WWD was also arrested for organising the rallies…. So, as we are going to be in lockdown again no doubt, there’s a risk. But I’ve been willing to take risks from the start so won’t stop now!”
The commenter responded: “We could do some major blocking of roads at the end...I get the feeling they wouldn’t try to kettle us…”
But who is Hine and how did she get involved in the anti-vax movement?
She lives in Putney, southwest London. In one video, she claims to have once worked as a cabin crew member for British Airways. Her LinkedIn profile lists roles as an event manager, as well as jobs in hospitality.
In a friendly video interview posted online in May, Hine railed against Covid jabs, promoting mistruths, such as people could miscarry or be sterile after getting vaccinated. She also outlined how she got involved in the anti-vax movement, describing media reports at the outset of the pandemic as “propaganda” and a “fear campaign”, adding that she “didn’t quite believe the statistics”.
She claimed not to have intentionally got involved, saying it “naturally happened and kind of snowballed”, adding: “So after doing months and months of research, sat at home during lockdown, living on my own… we were all feeling completely alone then but I was really alone, I had nothing else to do. And I was an events manager previously, so my job was one of the first to go, the hospitality industry, and I went to my first rally in Hyde Park on 16 May 2020.”
She added: “That particular day… there was 250 people, 300 people there, I thought, ‘wow, it’s huge, there’s so many people out’. And I ended up getting arrested because I refused a dispersal order under the coronavirus legislation because we were still technically in some form of lockdown. And, yeah, having been arrested and then spending 12 hours in custody, just for exercising my right to protest very, very peacefully… didn’t resist arrest or anything, I think that was my motivation then to carry on.”
And carry on she did. Recent activity includes a video she posted on Telegram on 2 November in which she called epidemiologist Neil Ferguson – whose data was instrumental in the UK going into the first lockdown – a “f*****g murderer” while he gave a lecture.
A self-styled “Covileaks” website run by Hine claims to speak the “truth” but does the opposite. Under one section headlined, “Just a few reasons to be a sceptic”, a piece authored by “Fiona” states: “There are many experts who question the very existence of this virus, or at the very least, they question the flawed science and handling of the ‘coronavirus pandemic’, I suggest we should all be asking many questions…”
In conclusion, the piece states: “Yes, you should be a sceptic,” adding: “So, we can confidently conclude that the [Covid] test is flawed and inaccurate, that figures have been exaggerated, that the government have used the media to manipulate the population and that there are many unanswered questions about the virus itself, should this not, at the very least, make sceptics of us all?”
Hine did not respond to requests for comment from The Independent. Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, said: “The impact of social media – and its ability to allow people to see cranky things like this [Hine’s posts] – is clearly influencing the way that people behave and the degree of vaccine hesitancy there is in the population.”
As Mr Johnson’s government ploughs on with its plan B drive to get people the booster jab, anti-vaxxers like Hine spreading misinformation present an unwelcome distraction. But, explained Professor Young, there is simply no doubting the positive impact of vaccines.
“There is no question about the heavy lifting that vaccination has done. If you look at the current numbers of infections and how that would translate to hospitalisations and deaths without vaccinations, it doesn’t bear thinking about. The rapid development and extensive safety testing of these vaccines is a testament to the dedicated work of scientists and regulators [MHRA],” he said.
“If you think about it from a virological, immunological perspective, this has been studied with all of the power of modern scientific technology.”
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