Professor Karol Sikora, an oncologist at the private Buckingham University, has become a social media star and a regular on TV screens, thanks to his viral tweets. You can see why the “Positive Professor” has developed such a wide fanbase: in an era of death, disease, economic turmoil and suspended freedoms, he offers desperate – often vulnerable – people the one thing they crave most: hope. His formula is simple: contrary to the misery peddled by the doom merchants, the measures strangling our economic and personal lives might actually be unnecessary.
But there is nothing so cruel as false hope, and during a pandemic in which people’s lives depend on adherence to social distancing measures, it can be dangerous. Sikora is not a virologist or an epidemiologist: he is a cancer specialist. That should not preclude him from commenting on coronavirus: newspapers and TV programmes abound with non-specialists discussing the government’s response to the crisis, which is as it should be in a democracy. What matters is that he dissents from the medical consensus on how the virus should be defeated.
Back in 2018, the BBC sent a briefing note to its staff asking them to be aware of false equivalence, accepting the BBC had got coverage of climate breakdown “wrong too often”, and telling them they did “not need a ‘denier’ to balance the debate”. This is the correct position: just because a fringe grouping of scientists endorse climate denial does not mean it should be treated as the legitimate, valid “other side” of the argument.
But Sikora has the title of Professor before his name, and was saying very different, and reassuring, things compared with other, apparently panic-stricken experts with the same title. “Panic and fear will only make the situation worse,” he tweeted, two days after the first lockdown began and a fortnight before a thousand or more Britons were dying from Covid-19 a day. “If government rules are followed, we will be back to normal by June.”
By May, Sikora felt vindicated, and hubris had set in. “Some laughed at my prediction at the end of March that we would start edging back to normality around the second week of May – it was right!” he declared. “I think by August things will be virtually back to normal, perhaps sooner.” He added a weak caveat: “We should still prepare for the worst, but hope for the best!”
As autumn set in, he began to overstretch his optimism and expertise. Speaking to the BBC, he favoured a prediction that the “the thing just fizzles out, it causes very few deaths, very few hospitalisations” and it “just gradually drifts” into something like flu or the common cold. It was a suggestion condemned by one leading scientist as “very dangerous”; another declared that “This is not fizzling out in any sense. Minimising the seriousness of this disease risks resurgence on a troubling scale.”
Sikora dug his heels in. As the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) recommended a circuit-breaker lockdown to avert “catastrophe”, Sikora signed a letter calling for the current approach to be abandoned in favour of targeted measures for the old and vulnerable, described by one scientist as a “thinly veiled return to a herd immunity strategy”.
Even more damningly, just 15 days ago, Sikora penned a column for the Daily Mail lobbying for restrictions to be eased for Christmas, and ridiculing talk of a more infectious strain – “as though we are living out a chapter of John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids.” We know what came next: more than 50,000 infections in one day alone. And yet, as I type this, Sikora is appearing on BBC Radio 2 as an informed guest.
Why has Sikora been so systematically signal-boosted by media outlets throughout the crisis? Any cursory exercise of due diligence should have set off alarm bells. Back in 2009, Imperial College London took legal advice to prevent Sikora from claiming he had an honorary professorship there, with its rector declaring: “This individual has been warned before by the college for making claims that he is employed by us” In the past, he has appeared in rightwing attack ads in the United States condemning the NHS, in which he claims patients have “lost control over their own destiny in the health system”. He has even denounced the NHS as “the last bastion of Communism”.
Sikora has protested throughout that he is driven by the “unfolding disaster” of cancer patients not getting the treatment they need because of coronavirus. But without strict measures to suppress coronavirus, our healthcare system would become overwhelmed and unable to treat cancer patients or indeed other desperately ill people. We can see that playing out in our hospitals now, with the NHS facing the prospect of “horrendous choices” over who gets treatment – and that’s before current case numbers translate into higher deaths in the coming weeks.
There will always be people such as Sikora who dissent from consensus thinking, and challenging hypotheses is all part of the scientific endeavour. But we’ve lived with the virus for long enough to test and establish the facts: this virus spreads through social contact, it has mutated into a more transmissible strain, it is at least 10 times deadlier than the flu, and it is pushing our NHS to the brink.
Whether the aim is balance or sensationalism – or perhaps the latter hidden under the guise of the former – the producers and editors who provide Sikora with a platform should pause to reflect on the consequences of their decisions. They are responsible for helping to spread disinformation and discrediting the legitimate voices of scientists, doctors, nurses and paramedics who have understood the scale of the crisis from the start.