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Fact/Fiction: Did Sajid Javid say Covid is like flu?

Old news, truthfully retold. This week The Big Issue assesses whether the new Health Secretary Sajid Javid compared Covid-19 to flu after accusations from scientists

Every week in Fact/Fiction, The Big Issue examines spurious claims, questionable studies or debatable stories from the press to determine whether they are fact or fiction. This week The Big Issue assesses whether the new Health Secretary Sajid Javid compared Covid-19 to flu after accusations from scientists.

How it was told

Sajid Javid’s short spell as health secretary has coincided with a push for freedom in England.

The Conservative politician was brought in from the cold, finding himself thrust back into frontline politics in the health secretary role after Matt Hancock resigned following his affair and subsequent breach of Covid restrictions.

It’s not a role many would relish taking on during the middle of the biggest public health crisis in living memory.

But here Javid is, and he has already found a controversial way to introduce himself to scientists.

With so-called Freedom Day set to arrive on July 19 in England, Javid penned a piece for the Mail on Sunday laying out the case for removing all Covid-19 restrictions. The article ran under the headline: “SAJID JAVID: The economic arguments for opening up Britain are well known. But, for me, the health case is equally compelling”.

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It was a single line from that piece that raised the ire of scientists. “We are going to have to learn to accept the existence of Covid and find ways to cope with it – just as we already do with flu.”

Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at Edinburgh University, disagreed. She tweeted in response: “New UK health minister saying COVID is like flu. Same position 18 months into the pandemic… I don’t understand this analogy.”

Another academic, Stephen Reicher, a social psychology professor at the University of St Andrews, said: “It is frightening to have a ‘Health’ Secretary who still thinks Covid is flu.”

The disagreement attracted press coverage in the Mirror, MetroThe Guardian and The National.

But was Javid right? 

Facts. Checked

The Health Secretary was both right and wrong in his statement.

On the one hand, Sajid Javid did not directly compare Covid-19 to influenza as some of the scientists accused him of.

Javid is right that Covid-19 will be with us for years to come. Throughout the pandemic, there have been several warnings from the scientific community that the coronavirus will likely need annual vaccinations to boost immunity and counter mutations and variants. Just as the NHS does every year with flu.

It was even underlined as Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced all Covid-19 restrictions would be lifted on July 19 in England.

In his response to the news, Professor Keith Neal, emeritus professor of the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, said: “Covid will be around for years to come so we need to learn to live with it.”

So in this sense, Javid is correct and it appears the scientists have misinterpreted his point.

However, there is possibly good reason why. There has been a common narrative on social media among Covid deniers who dismiss the virus as merely flu. Scientists and fact checkers have been trying to combat this narrative throughout the pandemic.

Javid’s association between the two does little to help that battle.

While both are respiratory illnesses, Covid-19 is caused by a strain of a coronavirus, whereas a completely different virus causes influenza.

There is also a key difference between the impact to the two viruses have had on the population, both in the UK and abroad, over the last year.

As a Lancet report titled ‘Covid-19 is not influenza’ reported in March 2021, “influenza never exceeded 4.5 per cent of the total national intensive care unit (ICU) bed capacity in Denmark”.

In the UK, the Health Foundation reported that around 30,000 people die from flu and pneumonia in a bad flu season, with a loss of around 250,000 life years. This is a sixth of the life years lost to Covid-19.

So in this sense, the scientists are correct.

It is clear flu and Covid-19 are completely different beasts when it comes to public health and that should continue to be underline to the public.

However, it also true that neither is going anywhere anytime soon and continued vaccination against both is necessary.

Worth repeating

30,000 people die from flu and pneumonia in a bad flu season, with a loss of around 250,000 life years. A sixth of the life years lost to Covid-19 

1.5 million potential years of life were lost in the UK to Covid-19 deaths during the first year of the pandemic. On average, each of the 146,000 people who died with COVID-19 lost 10.2 years of life. (Health Foundation)

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