Piers Corbyn, the climate change denier and brother of the former Labour leader, is facing a police investigation over leaflets likening Covid-19 vaccination efforts to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
The leaflets were described by a London council as an attempt to play on the fears of some residents, particularly people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds who are among those most at risk from Covid-19. They feature a sketch of the entrance to Auschwitz in which the gates’ infamous slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free) has been changed to read “Vaccines are safe path to freedom”.
Inside, there are baseless claims such as the conspiracy theory that some vaccines contain nanochip technology which will enable recipients to be electronically tracked. They bear the name of Corbyn, a weather forecaster, and that of his website, where the leaflets appear in digital form.
“Shameful disinformation of this sort dampens our efforts to help save lives,” said Councillor Kieron Williams, the leader of Southwark council, who said the authority had reported the matter to the police.
The Metropolitan police said they had been made aware that the leaflets had been distributed in recent days. Officers are investigating to determine whether any criminal offences have been committed.
However, the issue has highlighted the challenge of countering Covid-19 activists using old-fashioned methods to spread misinformation. When asked what it was doing specifically to counter “offline” misinformation, the government said confidence in vaccines continued to grow, and it was doing more through the NHS to grow trust in the vaccine by providing advice and information.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which leads the government’s counter-disinformation unit, pointed to its work with social media companies and the use of “local champions” to spread factual information about vaccines in their communities.
At Southwark council, Williams added: “It is deeply disturbing that a very small minority is playing upon the fears and concerns of some of our residents, particularly those most at risk from Covid-19 such as people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
“The vaccine is our best protection against Covid-19 and so false information and harmful conspiracy theories could cost yet more lives due to this deadly disease.”
There was also condemnation by the shadow culture secretary, Jo Stevens, who said: “The growth in dangerous and, in some cases, far-right and antisemitic anti-vaxx material is deeply worrying with coordinated attempts to spread fear and distrust both online and offline.
“Ensuring people feel safe taking the vaccine is literally a matter of life and death and if just one person is dissuaded from being vaccinated because of this it is one person too many.”
Corbyn was found guilty in December of breaching emergency health regulations at an anti-lockdown protest in London’s Hyde Park. Last summer, he became one of the first people to receive a £10,000 fixed penalty under new coronavirus laws restricting public gatherings of more than 30 people.
He has been approached for comment. The Evening Standard reported that he had confirmed he had been involved with designing the leaflets.
He said: “A group of us came up with the idea. The Evening Standard was saying that vaccines will set us all free and it is not true.” Asked by the newspaper if the leaflets broke the law, he added: “Of course not.”