I’m a Covid expert. Why do people hate us?

As the pandemic wore on, there was an ever-increasing call for mathematicians like me to decipher the data. Then the trolling started

Kit Yates
Friday 07 October 2022 06:15 BST
Chances of eliminating Covid from UK or around the world ‘close to zero’ says Chris Whitty

At the beginning of the pandemic we were all naive. When I first received a call, in March 2020, asking me to share my expertise about on mathematical modelling on the radio, I had no idea of the journey I was about to embark on. I thought I would chat with the presenter about the R number and exponential growth and that would be that.

That was indeed roughly how that first interview played out. However, as the pandemic wore on, there was an ever-increasing call for mathematicians like me to decipher the data. I was able to explain some of the missteps in the early modelling of the pandemic on the BBC’s More or Less and to review on Panorama the scientific decisions made in those first few weeks. I was invited to join the scientific advisory group, Independent SAGE, which only served to increase the demand for expert comment and interviews.

When an alarming number of people in the South West began messaging me on Twitter to tell me that they were testing positive on lateral flow tests but negative on PCR tests, I was able to work with colleagues in the media to help expose the Immensa testing scandal. Approximately 43,000 people were given false negative results – told they didn’t have Covid, when in fact they did. Many of them went on to infect others and the scandal almost certainly led to unnecessary deaths. The story ended up on the BBC six o’clock news and the failing laboratory was suspended.

It felt like what I was doing was having a positive impact, but there were costs. Inevitably, at the bottom of almost every tweet I wrote advocating improved public health measures to help bring the spread of Covid under control were a handful of replies accusing me of being paid to advocate lockdowns as part of some wide-ranging conspiracy theory; or defaming me as “mad” or worse (often much worse).

I am by no means unique as a scientist experiencing trolling on social media platforms. Indeed, many of my female colleagues and those from ethnic minority backgrounds have received much worse abuse than I have – death threats or even threats of sexual violence. Being a white male has shielded me from much of the worst abuse.

While, for me, brushing off trolls on social media is easy enough, it’s hard to remain completely unaffected by the frequent vile emails I receive. Vexatious correspondents can be blocked, but more detractors always seem to crawl out of the woodwork to replace them. Unsurprisingly, knowing colleagues who have been forced to involve the police after threatening contacts makes you wonder how much further your own nuisance messagers would be willing to go in order to satisfy their desire to right some perceived wrong.

These attacks from individuals hiding behind the shield of anonymity have been ongoing almost since the beginning, although for me their intensity has seemed to increase as time has gone on. In January this year, things took a more troubling turn. A friend alerted me to a piece in the Daily Mail with a headline that began, “Now Indy SAGE wants us to ‘do more’ to prevent flu!” with my picture splashed beneath. The whole article was a reaction to a tweet from the day before in which I’d suggested, “Perhaps it’s time we started talking about doing more to prevent flu”. Needless to say, few of the 600 comments beneath the article were complimentary. Having your character called into question in the world’s largest online news outlet as a result of a single tweet isn’t something many scientists are used to.

Earlier this month came perhaps the most concerning development of all in response to a pair of two peer-reviewed articles I authored in the British Medical Journal as part of their pandemic inquiry series. My colleagues and I were charged with pointing out places where the UK’s pandemic response could have been improved. Unsurprisingly, given the brief, our articles were, at some points, critical of government policy. Our forthright and well-evidenced critiques were not well received by the right-wing press. After our first article, the Telegraph published a piece labelling me and my co-authors as “hardline Covid scientists”, whatever that might mean. After the publication of our second article the Daily Mail labelled us as “hardline experts”, making incorrect statements about our paper which they were later asked to correct.

To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here

Being criticised for my tweets about preventable flu deaths was one thing. The right-wing media casting aspersions on my peer-reviewed work – the canon of my expertise – feels like a much darker authoritarian attempt to influence and subvert the scientific process.

Unsurprisingly, all of these vilifications take their toll on the scientists who suffer them. From my own experience, attempts to impugn my reputation do make me want to speak out less. It feels much easier to remain silent and to keep my head down than to risk putting it above the parapet for certain national newspapers to take pot shots at.

However, I firmly believe that it is important for scientists to continue to speak out about the pandemic. As the UK’s pandemic inquiry gathers pace, we must continue to provide evidence-based analysis and critiques of pandemic policy so that we might learn from the mistakes that were made and avoid them in the future, for everybody’s sake.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in