Emails show the UK is watching for people who say the new coronavirus variant is 'artificial'

Business Insider US
Protesters hold up placards as they gather at a "Memorial March" in central Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in north-east England on December 19, 2020.
LI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images
  • The UK government is actively monitoring for social media conspiracies in response to news of a new coronavirus variant.
  • Its media monitoring unit tracks and analyses social media reaction to the major UK headlines of the day.
  • In one email by the unit, seen by Business Insider, government authors wrote: "Many are unconcerned by the new variant, however some are more skeptical, claiming the concurrence of a new variant with the approval of a vaccine was suspicious timing. Some suggest the new variant may be artificial."
  • The government's analysis is neutral in tone, but hints at the communications challenge it faces to persuade a skeptical portion of the public to take the new strain seriously.
  • "Public favor [is] eroding day by day," says Dr Stephen Griffin of the University of Leeds. "We are left at the mercy of misinformation and fringe viewpoints."
  • Visit Business Insider SA's homepage for more stories.

The UK government is monitoring social media for conspiracy theorists who say the new coronavirus strain is "artificial", noting in internal emails some skepticism that the new variants were real.

The internal emails, seen by Business Insider, were sent by the UK's Media Monitoring Unit (MMU) to politicians and civil servants. The unit is part of the Cabinet Office and informs the government's daily press strategy.

Although neutral and analytical in tone, the emails give an insight into where the government anticipates communications challenges. It's clear that tackling anti-vaccine sentiment and conspiracy theories about the new variant both rank high on that list of challenges.

In an email sent December 20, for example, the day's communique summarises social media reactions to the worryingly "mutant" strain of coronavirus prevalent in the UK, news of which emerged over the weekend.

Summarising Facebook responses to a story by The Independent about the new strain, the email states: "Many are unconcerned by the new variant, however some are more skeptical, claiming the concurrence of a new variant with the approval of a vaccine was suspicious timing. Some suggest the new variant may be artificial."

A screenshot of an email sent by the UK government's Media Monitoring Unit, summarizing responses to the major headlines of the day.
Chris Stokel-Walker

The emails do not say what measures the government might take to mitigate these sentiments. The conspiracies come despite the UK government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) outlining the potential severity of the new variant.

The government also acknowledged a 5,000% increase in searches for "how is new variant more transmissible", "why is new variant more transmissible", and "what is this new Covid-19 variant".

Responding to increasingly severe measures

The emails also tracked how social media users responded to stricter measures in the UK.

Over a chaotic weekend, prime minister Boris Johnson plunged millions of people in London and the south east into a strict lockdown and toughened up rules elsewhere in response to the new coronavirus strain.

The threat of the new mutation caused much of Europe to close its borders to the UK, imperilling up to 20% of food supplies passing through the port of Dover over Monday and Tuesday.

Despite an outright ban in new "Tier 4" areas in the UK on any mixing at Christmas and a limit on socialising elsewhere, the MMU noted social media "commenters predict some members of the public will break Tier 4 rules over the Christmas period."

And in emails sent on December 21, the government again came under fire after much of Europe barred travellers from the UK.

"Top comments are generally understanding of the decisions taken by EU nations, claiming the UK would do the same," the government writes. "A number of comments argue that the UK's borders should have closed at the beginning of the pandemic, and progress to further criticize the Government's response."

The public also appear worried about the impact of the border closures on everyday life.

Top comments on a story from The Guardian about the travel bans, reports the MMU, "call for an extension to Brexit negotiations, and express concern about the impacts of Brexit on shipments of medical supplies."

All of this may be indicative of cratering public trust in the government, according to one expert.

"The new SARS2 variant may well be cause for significant concern, and all the more reason to be vigilant," says Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor in the School of Medicine, University of Leeds. "However, that it has taken an event of this nature to provoke a reaction from the government says more about the current scenario in the UK and the long-term view of how this came to be, rather than the naturally upsetting and disappointing false promises over Christmas that have now been revoked.

"Half-baked policies neither restore socio-economic harms, nor suppress infections, and the reactionary, fragmented and confusing implementation of tiers along with their obscure criteria has led to public favour eroding day by day," adds Griffin. "We are left at the mercy of misinformation and fringe viewpoints."

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