On the streets with Sheffield’s anti-vax activists
‘People believe what they want to believe’
By Dan Hayes
“What do we want? NO JABS! When do we want it? NOW!”
When I set off from home I’m worried that no one will turn up. It’s 10.30am on Thursday morning and I’m heading to Sheffield city centre to cover a planned anti-vaccine rally outside the Town Hall. But it’s cold. Really, really cold. The temperature fell to minus three overnight and is barely above freezing now.
I needn’t have worried. As I walk up the crunchy salt-covered steps to St Paul’s Place a group of around 20 hardy souls are gathered outside Browns, the rendezvous point I’d seen discussed on social media the night before.
I’m early so I keep my distance, discreetly walking past the group in the hope of finding some shelter from the biting wind. But right on cue at 11.00am they make their way to the front of the Town Hall. Their numbers have now swelled to around 50, a decent turnout given the conditions, and many are wearing blue hoodies with “NHS Staff for Freedom of Choice” emblazoned on the back. Most other people in town are oblivious to what is about to happen. But as they reach the steps the chants begin.
Tyranny, we don’t comply!
From clapping, to sacking!
My body, my choice!
No NHS mandate!
As well as the brightly-coloured hoodies, lots of them have placards. Many are the mass-produced “NHS100K” ones, a reference to the number of NHS staff who health secretary Sajid Javid said last year were still unvaccinated (equating to around 7.5% of the total workforce). Others have improvised homemade signs. “No jab, no job is blackmail,” says one. “If there is a risk there must be a choice,” reads another.
I try to introduce myself to the people making the most noise, but many are wary of me. Almost nobody is willing to have their pictures taken or give me their names. They tell me this is because they could lose their jobs, but it’s obvious they aren’t big fans of the “mainstream media” either. Whether The Tribune counts as that I’m not sure — but I manage to persuade some of them to talk.
Most say they are not anti-vaxxers but are instead pro-choice. They simply want NHS staff to have the right not to have a vaccine and continue to work. The government says all health service staff who have direct contact with patients must have had their first dose of a Covid vaccine by February 3 or risk losing their job at the end of March. Last week the TUC called for this to be delayed amid fears it would cause widespread staff shortages at a time when the service could least afford it.
The rally has been organised on the loosely moderated social networking site Telegram, where unsubstantiated claims about Covid go largely unchallenged. Much of the information shared on the site and brought up to me at the rally has been repeatedly debunked by experts and fact-checkers. But in the dark corners of the internet where trust in politicians, government officials and the media is non-existent, the ideas refuse to die.
“If you’re a journalist, why don’t you know about the yellow card system,” one young woman asks me. She’s referring to the reporting mechanism operated by the MHRA (the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) to monitor adverse reactions to the Covid-19 vaccines. The woman, who says she works as a band 2 ECG technician at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, holds up a poster which says 1,719 deaths and more than 1.2 million injuries have been caused by the vaccine so far. It’s alleged that this accounts for only 1-10% of the deaths and injuries that are currently being officially reported.
I confess I’ve never heard of it, but promise to look it up. “It’s a government website, not a conspiracy theory,” she says. And she’s right. The MHRA does actively encourage people to report Covid vaccine side effects and adverse reactions to them so they can monitor the rollout. Thousands of adverse reactions have since been reported, leading some anti-vaccine activists to claim that the number of deaths and injuries caused is being underreported. But multiple fact check websites point out that every report isn’t conclusive evidence that the vaccine was to blame.
But even if all these deaths were due to the vaccines, they would still be vastly outweighed by the 150,000 deaths that have been caused by Covid, wouldn’t they? “Yeah, but it’s about what they are dying with not of,” says another woman, who tells me she works in the NHS in Sheffield but won’t say where. “The figures are being manipulated.”
Also brought up is mRNA, the pioneering technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Robert Malone, an American virologist who claims to have “invented” the technology in the 1980s, has recently said that mRNA vaccines might actually make Covid-19 infections worse and that the vaccine programme was a huge mistake. Videos of him repeating the claims have been banned from YouTube as misinformation but the ECG technician tells me they can still be found on the unmoderated video sharing site Brand New Tube. “You won’t find dogs dressed up as Santa dancing on there,” she says. “It’s specifically for news.”
If they don’t trust the mainstream media, who do they trust? As I’m walking around, I’m passed a copy of The Light newspaper. The professionally printed publication’s front page has an article entitled “WAR on free thought” about the government’s Draft Online Safety Bill which the story says is a way of introducing state-based censorship of alternative news sources. But inside the paper are articles by Anne Marie Waters, the leader of the far right anti-Islam party For Britain, and another about a conspiracy theory that the Bilderburg Group is using Covid as a way of controlling the world population. “As many are now realising,” the article begins. “Covid is merely the next step in an ongoing war being silently waged on the mass human population.”
Of the dozen or so people I speak to, around half are from Sheffield. But there are protesters there from all over the country. One of the few willing to be identified is paramedic Kathy Jones, who has travelled that morning from Liverpool. She is standing with a woman from Lincolnshire and another paramedic called Sarah from the North East. All three have the blue hoodies on. I interrupt them as they are giving out leaflets to passers by. “Did you clap for the NHS?” they ask them. It’s a clever way of getting people’s attention.
Kathy tells me they’re all part of the NHS100K admin team, an organisation set up six weeks ago to argue for their right to decline a vaccine. She doesn't see the need to have the jab and says that in the North West Ambulance Service there are hundreds more like her. “I recovered from Covid almost two years ago and I’ve still got antibodies,” she tells me. “I’ve worked right through with limited PPE at the beginning and have not been sick since.”
In most of the conversations I have, these seemingly reasonable arguments jostle with mistrust and misinformation in the minds of those I speak to. I ask one woman who says she works in mental health in Sheffield that if the jab is at best unnecessary or at worst dangerous, why are the government scientists and NHS bosses so keen on it. “I don’t know that’s the sinister thing,” she replies. “It’s either for the money or going digital.”
Others cite the growing list of alleged Downing Street parties as a reason not to comply while one person tells me to watch Dopesick, a television programme about the opioid epidemic in America (the implication being that a scandal on the scale of the pharmaceutical industry’s criminal mis-selling of the addictive pain relief medication OxyContin is in the process of taking place with Covid).
“If it starts with us, where does it stop?” one NHS worker from Rotherham asks me. “Maybe you’ll have to have a jab to work as a journalist or in a shop. Maybe you’ll have to have a jab to get on the bus. It’s segregating society.” But most NHS staff have had the vaccine, haven’t they? “Allegedly,” she replies.
The woman is there with her dad, who looks like he’s in his 60s and says he is unvaccinated. “I don't know anyone who was fit who has died with Covid but I know people who are fit who've died from the vaccine,” he says. When I press him it turns out he doesn't actually know anyone who has died from a Covid vaccine, but he says he “is aware” of people who have. “People believe what they want to believe,” he adds. “I believe people should have freedom of choice.”
Just before I go I pluck up the courage to speak to the leader of the rally (or it’s loudest shouter), a burly looking man from Leeds wearing an orange puffer jacket and North American-style “trapper” hat. He too won’t give me his name or be photographed but tells me he’s worked in mental health for 22 years and “sailed through” Covid when he got it in 2020. We have a good chat, but like all the others he is adamant that he would rather lose his job than have the vaccine. He says it should be about personal choice, but then tells me my reasons for taking all three jabs are “trivial”. Is he a conspiracy theorist, I ask. “That’s an insulting term,” he replies.
When I get home and defrost my hands I check the news and see a tweet from Darren McCaffrey, the political editor of GB News (one of the few television stations the protesters say they watch as it “reports both sides”). The tweet quotes Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking directly to people like those I have spent the morning talking to. “I want to say to the anti-vaxx campaigners,” says the PM. “The people who are putting this mumbo jumbo on social media, they are completely wrong.”
Earlier in the week, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said he had been “rather saddened” when speaking to unvaccinated people who were now sick with Covid-19 in hospital, who he said now make up the “great majority” of those in intensive care units in the UK. In a video shared by the Department of Health and Social Care, he said it was the job of healthcare professionals to honestly explain to people about potential side-effects but also to dispel rumours that had been put onto the internet “deliberately to scare people”.
Late on Friday their task became that bit harder. A Sky News video emerged which showed Dr Steve James, a consultant anaesthetist from King’s College Hospital challenging health secretary Sajid Javid on the vaccine mandate. “I’ve not had a vaccination, I do not want to have a vaccination,” says Dr James. “The science isn't strong enough.” Mr Javid replies that the government is taking the “very best advice” from experts, and many other doctors later pointed out that his views were massively out of step with mainstream medical opinion. But among the anti-vaxxers on Telegram that night he was already being treated as a hero.