People have been publicly protesting against various measures brought in by the UK government to stop the spread of Covid-19 for some time.
But the weekend saw the biggest rally so far, with thousands of people gathering in Trafalgar Square in central London to call for an end to lockdown restrictions.
Headlines were also generated when Jeremy Corbyn’s brother Piers was fined £10,000 for helping to organise the event, called Unite for Freedom.
What is this protest movement all about? And do its demands have a factual basis?
Who are the organisers?
The share card used to promote Saturday’s rally on social media doesn’t tell us much about who organised it. A crowdfunding page which raised more than £14,000 to put on the event describes it as “a collaborative effort between many groups including: #StopNewNormal #FreePeopleAlliance #SaveOurRights #StandUpX #CollectiveAction Against BillGates and many others who are working with us”.
Some of these names have little public presence beyond a closed Facebook group, though some have websites, usually with limited information about the identities of the people behind them.
The most detailed and professionally produced website belongs to StandUpX, which has a kind of manifesto on its homepage.
This group also appears to have been behind a march on August 1 which saw crowds of people marching to the London headquarters of the BBC.
Of course it’s not possible to say how many people who attended the Trafalgar Square rally support StandUpX or have signed up to every item on its agenda.
The StandUpX site makes a number of claims which are highly debatable or straightforwardly untrue:
‘Forced, coerced or mandated vaccinations’
The group says it is against forced vaccination – but there is no such thing in the United Kingdom.
In 2019 the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said he was considering bringing in compulsory vaccinations in England in response to an upsurge in Measles, in line with some European countries.
But the UK government has not legislated to force parents to have their children vaccinated.
Not for the last time, StandUpX bring in Bill Gates here, saying: “Humanity will be a mass science experiment profiting billions for pharmaceutical companies and their partners including Bill Gates.”
The Microsoft founder has pledged billions to help fund vaccination programmes in developing countries, where millions of children die each year from preventable diseases.
There’s no evidence that Bill Gates is a supporter of compulsory vaccination against coronavirus. In recent interviews, he clearly envisages a future vaccine being voluntary, saying in a recent interview: “You’ll have a choice of whether you take the vaccine or not.”
“Tracking & Tracing is a total violation of personal privacy and freedom to associate. It is a digital Gestapo.”
It seems unfair to compare the UK government’s programme of tracing coronavirus cases to the activities of the Nazi secret police.
One major difference is that many components of the NHS Test and Trace scheme are voluntary – they rest on people agreeing to take part.
If you test positive, you will be contacted and asked to share details of people you have been in recent contact with.
But none of this is compulsory. It relies on people following the guidance and being honest about their movements.
Similarly, while diners are encouraged to share contact details with restaurant staff to make it easy to contact them in the event of an outbreak, they don’t have to as a matter of law.
“To add to this oppression, the government is proposing a Health Passport…”
Ministers have reportedly been looking at options for a digital certificate that would allow people to prove they don’t have Covid-19.
It’s fair to say that such a plan, if it ever came to fruition, would raise ethical questions. But the UK government has not actually made any concrete proposals to introduce health passports.
“… which is designed to track your health records, purchases and public activities including travel. It will not be temporary. It is the preliminary step to 24/7 tracking via an implantable chip. ID2020 is an implantable digital chip developed by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, proposed for all 7 billion humans to have…”
Here’s where we get way out into conspiracy theory. There is simply no evidence that Bill Gates has any plans to implant microchips into human beings.
He has discussed the possibility of digital health certificates in interviews, but this is a world away from implants that track people’s movements.
Gates himself has said: “I’ve never been involved in any microchip type thing. It is good to know which kids have had a measles vaccine and which have not, so there are data systems and… health records that people use to track that… but there’s no chips or anything like that.
“It’s almost hard to deny this stuff, because it’s so stupid or strange, that to even to repeat almost seems to give it credibility.”
Is this really about the coronavirus?
We slid from health passports to Bill Gates pretty quickly there, and in fact it’s clear that StandUpX have a number of preoccupations that go way beyond the government’s response to Covid-19.
They also want to “take down 5G” – that’s the new mobile phone network which has inspired a host of bizarre conspiracy theories.
StandUpX say: “5G is necessary for the infrastructure of 24/7 Surveillance Tracking & Implantable Microchips.”
It’s hard to know what to do with a claim like this, other than noting that there is no evidence for any of it.
StandUpX repeat the widely debunked claim that large numbers of trees are being felled to make way for 5G transmitters.
‘New World Order’
As the claims get increasingly outlandish, we have to note that one of the speakers at Saturday’s rally was David Icke, the veteran conspiracy theorist who recently had his YouTube channel and Facebook page deleted for spreading misinformation about the coronavirus.
Icke, who has stated his belief that a number of prominent global figures are in fact shape-shifting reptilian beings of alien extraction, was warmly received by the crowd in Trafalgar Square.
Of course, we don’t know how familiar the people applauding were with David Icke’s output. It’s impossible to say, for example, how many people are aware that Jewish groups have long condemned Icke’s work as antisemitic – a charge he denies.
But there are signs that at least a few people attending the rally have similar preoccupations as David Icke.
His claim that a secret cabal of paedophiles is trying to control the world has been echoed recently in QAnon, a sprawling conspiracy theory that has gained traction in US far-right circles. Some protesters in Trafalgar Square carried banners that referenced QAnon.
And StandUpX’s August 1 march in London was billed as an “Anti-New World Order March” – referencing a phrase frequently used by Icke and other conspiracists to describe a secret cabal supposedly plotting to take over the world.