77th brigade “to take on anti-vax militants”

British Army spies wage ‘information war’ against anti-vaxx content online – report
RT.com, Nov 29 2020

With a significant number of Britons skeptical of a Covid vaccine, the army has reportedly deployed an “information warfare” unit to stamp out anti-vaxx propaganda online. Offline, citizens still protest lockdowns in the streets. The British government is expected to greenlight a coronavirus vaccine and begin its distribution next month. In addition to the logistical challenge of getting millions of doses to the public, the government also faces the hurdle of convincing them to take it. According to a recent poll by the British Academy and the Royal Society, more than a third of people in Britain say they’re either uncertain or very unlikely to take the vaccine. According to a report in the Sunday Times, ministers are preparing to launch a massive public information campaign to convince people to take the jab. Behind the scenes, however, the Times reported that the British Army has mobilized the 77th Brigade’s Defence Cultural Specialist Unit to monitor and counter “online propaganda against vaccines.”

The unit was formed in 2010 and worked alongside psychological operations teams in Afghanistan, studying the behavior of the civilian population and giving cultural and linguistic advice to ground troops, according to the brigade’s own website. However, according to a number of media reports, the unit counts at least one Twitter executive among its ranks, and is said to create and manage fake social media profiles to shape public opinion. The media discovered that the 77th Brigade’s speciality, according to a plaque on the wall of its Berkshire base, is creating “behavioural change.” With the rollout of a vaccine imminent, the unit is “already monitoring cyberspace for Covid-19 content and analysing how British citizens are being targeted online,” according to the Times.

The Times’ report does not detail exactly how the unit will fight back against anti-vaxx content, or even what kind of content will be targeted. A Ministry of Defence spokesperson told the Times that the brigade’s efforts are “not being directed at the UK population,” and leaked documents reportedly suggest that its strategy includes “gathering evidence of vaccine disinformation from hostile states, including Russia.” Despite the apparent focus on Moscow as a hub of vaccine disinformation, Russia was the first country in the world to approve a Covid-19 vaccine, and a second Russian-made jab will be made available to the public next month.

Meanwhile on the streets of London, crowds gathered on Saturday to protest the government’s lockdown measures, as a system of tiered restrictions will come into force on Wednesday. Critics argue that this system is simply an extension of the current national lockdown, and as the demonstrators in London chanted “freedom” and “stop controlling us,” police arrested more than 150 people, mostly for defying these lockdown restrictions. While many feel unjustly controlled by the lockdown, the government has also reportedly deployed its intelligence agencies to control public opinion online. In addition to the 77th Brigade’s efforts, GCHQ has been tasked with countering online disinformation, according to the Times. Though its exact role in this fight remains unknown, the media revealed that the agency has previously “developed covert tools to seed the internet with false information,” manipulated online polls and covertly influenced online discussion.

Army spies to take on antivax militants
Gabriel Pogrund, Tim Ripley, Sunday Times, Nov 29 2020

The army has mobilised an elite “information warfare” unit renowned for assisting operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban to counter online propaganda against vaccines, as Britain prepares to deliver its first injections within days. The defence cultural specialist unit was launched in Afghanistan in 2010 and belongs to the army’s 77th Brigade. The secretive unit has often worked side-by-side with psychological operations teams. Leaked documents reveal that its soldiers are already monitoring cyberspace for Covid-19 content and analysing how British citizens are being targeted online. It is also gathering evidence of vaccine disinformation from hostile states, including Russia.

Next month the 77th Brigade will begin an “uplift” of professional and reserve soldiers to join operations. The scaling up of intelligence efforts comes after at least 155 people were arrested, including for assault on a police officer, during anti-lockdown protests in the West End of London yesterday. Many appeared to be influenced by anti-vax propaganda and refused to wear masks. Ministers are alarmed at the impact that online propaganda is having on public opinion. A recent report found that more than one-third of people are uncertain or are very unlikely to be vaccinated. Ministers believe Britain will become the first western country to approve a vaccine next week. A BioNTech and Pfizer treatment is set to receive approval within days, paving the way for injections as soon as Dec 7. Ministers will then launch a huge public campaign to encourage people to get a jab.

The campaign will be reinforced by counter-disinformation efforts led by the Cabinet Office, with support from the army and GCHQ. Yesterday, conspiracy theories claiming that the pandemic was a cover for a plot by Bill Gates to implant trackable microchips into people, were readily available on Google and Twitter. Last night, army Brig (Retd) Ben Barry of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said the army would probably become increasingly important in countering Covid-19 disinformation. A core part of its work was analysing how messages flowed around the world, who was viewing messages, reacting and then spreading them to other people. The Ministry of Defence said:

Defence cultural support unit capabilities are not being directed at the UK population. 77th Brigade do not, and have never, conducted any kind of action against British citizens.

Last night a Cabinet Office spokesman said:

As we edge closer to a vaccine we continue to work closely with social media companies and other organisations to anticipate and mitigate any emerging anti-vax narratives and promote authoritative sources of information.

Unreliable ‘lateral flow’ tests could spell Christmas disaster for elderly
Andrew Gregory, Sunday Times, Nov 29 2020

Mass community testing threatens to hinder the rollout of a coronavirus vaccine and false negative results could lead to “disaster” over Christmas, scientists and health officials have warned. Widespread testing, where everyone is asked to be tested regardless of whether they have symptoms, will be introduced in England’s tier 3 “high risk” areas, following a pilot scheme in Liverpool. The Faculty of Public Health and the Association of Directors of Public Health said in a joint statement that extending it to 23m people in tier 3 areas would be a massive undertaking that could stretch resources and compromise other priorities, such as a vaccine rollout. Boris Johnson signalled on Thursday that mass testing, including the use of lateral flow tests, which give results in 20 minutes without the need for a laboratory, could be the way out of tier 3 restrictions, saying it involved “everybody working together to kick Covid out.” The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said Liverpool, where 300k people have been tested, had shown how effective the measure can be. But this weekend scientists and health officials raised concerns that mass testing was not as straightforward or as successful as claimed.

Lateral flow tests involve a handheld kit that gives a result in 20 minutes. Fluid from a nasal swab or saliva goes on one end, then a marking appears if you are positive, a bit like a pregnancy test. The accuracy of different lateral flow tests has varied in trials. The ones used in Liverpool return very few false positives, but result in considerably more false negatives. Scientists also warned that flaws with mass testing meant some people would be wrongly told they were not infected, raising the risk that they might infect others. About one in five tests gives a false negative result. Just 76.8% of people who had the virus received a positive result. Professor Jon Deeks, a biostatistician at Birmingham University, said caution was required. He said:

Some people who are falsely negative will end up spreading Covid to their granny or grandad, and that could be a disaster. It’s the last thing we want to do at Christmas.

Separately, there are also fears that attributing Liverpool’s falling infection rate to mass testing may be misplaced. The pilot scheme only began this month, when coronavirus cases had already dropped from more than 700 infections per 100k to less than 300. The government’s £100b Operation Moonshot plans for mass testing have been developed without scrutiny from the national screening committee. The government’s plan to mass test students for the coronavirus before more than a million young people leave university from tomorrow to travel home for Christmas was last night called a “recipe for chaos” which could lead to a spike in infection rates. The University and College Union raised “grave concerns” about the accuracy of the Covid-19 tests being used and warned that many students would travel without taking the voluntary tests on campus, because they did not want to self-isolate if they tested positive. It said some universities were not testing students at all.

Covid vaccinations: Your country needs you… to get stuck into inoculating Britain
Andrew Gregory, Sunday Times, Nov 29 2020

A mass vaccination campaign is looming and the NHS has a message for Britons: could you come and help with the jabs? In an echo of Lord Kitchener’s First World War army recruitment campaign, the health service is seeking thousands of Covid-19 “vaccinators” to help with the daunting task of inoculating tens of millions of Britons. Your country needs you, and no experience is required. “Play your part in the Covid-19 vaccination programme,” urges the website of NHS Professionals, a government agency that provides the health service with temporary workers. Job seekers who may never have worked in health-care are being offered £11.20/hr to administer the vaccine shots. Some are being hired on six-month contracts and are being told they will be working six-hour shifts in teams. Experience in giving injections will be “desirable” but not “essential,” according to job specifications published last week. Anyone aged over 18 can apply, with “specific training” given on how to “administer vaccines into the patient’s deltoid,” the medical jargon for sticking a needle into someone’s shoulder muscle. The NHS warns that vaccinators will require “physical, mental and emotional effort” and will have to stand up delivering vaccines for most of their shift. They must wear masks and protective equipment and may face “occasional exposure to aggressive patients and family members.” It will be the vaccinator’s task to reassure patients, assess their readiness, ensure that the correct syringes are used, and check that the right vaccine batch numbers are recorded for each patient.

How much has the UK government spent on tackling Covid?
Tom Calver, Ademola Bello, Sunday Times, Nov 29 2020

The chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme cost about £850m

The cost of Britain’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic to date is £284b (or £283.915b to be exact), according to the government’s spending review published last week. That bill will rise even further, with at least £55b more for public services alone earmarked for 2021-22. To pay for all of this, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has estimated that borrowing will rise to £394b this year, the highest level since WW2. But how exactly has that money been spent? And how can we understand a 12-digit number in terms that actually make sense? One option is to compare the figure to the cost of massive scientific or infrastructure projects. £280b today would pay for two Apollo space programmes, which sent astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 70s at a cost of $25b. Or, you could build the Channel Tunnel 15 times over, which cost around £18b in 2020 prices. You could bail out high street banks about one and a half times, as Gordon Brown did at a cost of around £137b in 2009, which works out at roughly £180b today. Alternatively, that sum could be spread equally across everyone in the country. Such a figure would pay every adult’s income tax and national insurance bill for 11 months of the year. At £4.2k per UK citizen, you could pay for all 67m people in Britain to go on a three-week tour of Australia, pay their entire food bill for two years or buy them a second-hand car each.

How has such a staggering sum been spent? Broadly, the £284bn has been put into two main categories: public services, comprising the NHS, education and local government, and economic support, such as the furlough scheme. According to the latest figures, the government has put an additional £113b into public services in 2020-21. This includes £52b in extra money for front-line NHS services and includes the costs most typically associated with the pandemic. The cost of the entire NHS Test and Trace programme, led by Baroness Dido Harding, will rise to £22bn by the end of the year, according to the spending review. That sum could pay for two London Olympic games. Some have questioned the programme’s value for money. Given 40m tests have been carried out in the UK since March, the cost of doing all of those privately would come to just £4.8b, barely a quarter of the programme’s total cost. Separately, its contact tracing arm has failed to reach nearly half of all the contacts of infected people. Another common criticism has been its use of management consultants. At least £10m was paid to Boston Consulting, which charged the taxpayer up to £6,000 a day for a single senior consultant on the programme.

Also included in the bill is the Test and Trace app, set to cost £35m, which includes £10m for the failed version that was tested on the Isle of Wight in the spring. The cost of the app could have funded the salaries of 1k police constables. After Test and Trace, the next biggest spend is the £15bn set aside for personal protective equipment (PPE). For that price, the government could remove cladding from every dangerous building in the UK. Last week the National Audit Office suggested that the NHS paid £10bn too much for PPE compared with 2019 prices as costs escalated during the spring. More than £250m of that sum was paid to Ayanda Capital, a family-run firm. The majority of its masks could not be used by the NHS because of safety fears. Another significant cost was the purchasing of 8k private hospital beds in March, in a contract worth nearly £1.6b, in response to fears that the health service would run out of beds. That sum alone could have funded four moderately sized new hospitals.

The second major slice of Covid spending relates to the economic support given to individuals and businesses during lockdown. The coronavirus job retention scheme will have cost an estimated £54bn by March, making it the single most expensive policy of the pandemic. With that money the government could directly fund and build 400,000 homes, easily surpassing its annual targets. In addition, the self-employed support scheme has already given out £13.7bn in two tranches since the start of April, while billions more have been handed out in business loan payments. At the cheaper end of the policy ladder, the chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which gave restaurant diners 50% off meals for much of August, cost about £850m. That relatively modest sum could also pay for free school meals for every schoolchild during the holidays until the end of 2022. Because so many workers have been on furlough, and because low spending reduces the amount of VAT collected, the treasury’s tax receipt is expected to be about £100bn lower than usual. This sum is equivalent to the predicted cost of the entire HS2 rail link, not due to fully open until 2040. Many people will question whether some spending decisions offered value for money, but few would argue against the Covid pandemic demanding robust financial intervention. But it is only through breaking down and comparing those costs that we see how truly spectacular they are.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.