The story of how anti-vax misinformation consumed a sitting MP

New year, new Conservative party. That’s the image Rishi Sunak has tried to paint in the public mind at the start of 2023. The government has five new “people’s priorities” debuted in a pledge-heavy new year address, and the prime minister spoke directly to the nation on Thursday as part of a heavily stylised evening broadcast. 

It is therefore little surprise that the government acted quickly over Andrew Bridgen’s now-infamous tweet on Wednesday. The MP for North West Leicestershire had shared a critical article about Covid vaccines with the comment: “As one consultant cardiologist said to me this is the biggest crime against humanity since the holocaust”.

The backlash was immediate. Former cabinet minister Simon Clarke described his claim as “disgraceful”, while Michael Fabricant said Bridgen had “blood on his hands” if his comments stop people getting vaccinated. At PMQs on Wednesday, former health secretary Matt Hancock hit out at the promotion of “disgusting, anti-Semitic, anti-vax conspiracy theories”.

Only three hours after Bridgen hit post on the tweet, Conservative party chief whip Simon Hart issued a damning reprieve:

Andrew Bridgen has crossed a line, causing great offence in the process. As a nation we should be very proud of what has been achieved through the vaccine programme. The vaccine is the best defence against Covid that we have. Misinformation about the vaccine causes harm and costs lives. I am therefore removing the whip from Andrew Bridgen with immediate effect, pending a formal investigation

This is not the first time Andrew Bridgen has raised eyebrows in British politics. He entered the public consciousness throughout the Brexit debates from 2016-2019 as one of 28 so-called “Brexit Spartans” who voted against Theresa May’s Brexit deal all three times. Bridgen’s rebellious streak has made him no friend of consecutive Conservative PMs, calling for votes of no confidence at various points in David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

But Bridgen’s unabashed controversialism has never strayed far away from Conservative party thought. As a member of the Covid Research Group (CRG), European Research Group (ERG) and Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG), he was the archetypal acronym-adoring Tory MP. On these issues and others, Bridgen was never short of ideological allies. 

Bridgen’s recent tirades against Covid vaccines step outwith the bounds of even fringe Conservative thought. So how did Bridgen move from Brexit-ultra and darling of the grassroots to full-blooded Covid conspiracy theorist? It has been a storied journey.

At the start: Lockdown scepticism 

Through 2021, Bridgen was one of almost 100 Conservative MPs who spoke out against the continuation of lockdown and repeated rubber-stamping of the emergency Coronavirus Act through the pandemic. As Omicron spread rapidly throughout the UK in December 2021, he accused Boris Johnson’s government of creating an “epidemic of fear”.

Bridgen said in the commons debate: “In my view the most dangerous epidemic sweeping the world and sweeping our country is an epidemic of fear. It has seriously damaged mental health and in particularly damaged the mental health of our young people, it must end”.

He was joined by several other outspoken Conservative MPs, including former chief whip and current transport secretary Make Harper. Harper warned MPs are “kidding themselves” if they think Covid passes will remain limited to nightclubs and large venues in England as a condition of entry.

Other notable contributors included Desmond Swayne, who accused the government of abandoning “any principle of social democracy or liberal democracy”; and current Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker who argued that as many as 88,000 people would leave the health sector if vaccination was made a condition of employment. 

Moving along: Focus on vaccine “damage” 

Still cautious not to be labelled as anti-vax, Bridgen was one of a number of Conservative MPs to raise concerns over vaccine “damages” through the later stages of 2021 and into 2022. The new push was led within parliament by Sir Christopher Chope, the Conservative MP for Christchurch.

On 10 September 2021, Chope presented the Covid-19 Vaccine Damage Bill to the House of Commons. If passed, the bill would have required the health secretary to establish an independent review of disablement caused by Covid-19 vaccinations and look at appropriate forms of compensation. 

Presenting the bill to parliament, Chope said: “We cannot suppress reports of coroners saying that somebody has died as a result of having a vaccination. I know from my own personal knowledge of people who have suffered—people who were in really good health and then had their first vaccine. … I am certainly not an anti-vaxxer or anything like that, but what is important is that, if people do the right thing, they should not be denied access to compensation”.

In the aftermath of the debate, independent fact-checking organisation Full Fact accused Chope of making a series of “unevidenced claims about vaccine damage”.

Picking up the pace: Support from third parties

In July 2022, the all-party parliamentary group for Covid-19 Vaccine Damage was registered to provide a further vehicle to explore the issue of vaccine harm. Christopher Chope chairs the group, with fellow Conservative MPs Edward Leigh, Desmond Swayne and Greg Knight listed as officers. Labour MP Graham Stringer is the sole non-Conservative voice in the group.

The group was launched in late 2022 at an event in parliament. According to reporting by Tortoise Media, former Brexit party MEP James Freeman Wells offered paying subscribers access to the event despite the fact that meetings on the parliamentary estate are supposed to be free.

The meeting came a week before a Westminster Hall debate on the same issue, which was called after a petition demanding a public inquiry into the use of jabs during the Covid-19 pandemic reached 100,000 signatures.

In the following debate, held on 24 October 2022, Christopher Chope claimed that the vaccines were “not perfectly safe” and that there was a question about “whether they are effective”. Chope’s contribution was applauded by a group of anti-vaxers in the gallery, inducing Piers Corbyn, Jeremy Corbyn’s brother. 

Also contributing to the debate, Conservative MP Danny Kruger gave a brief description of the APPG’s activities. He said: “The APPG looks at vaccine injuries, and we had what I think was our first meeting last week in a Committee room in Portcullis House. I am afraid there were only a tiny handful of colleagues there, but well over a hundred members of the public attended, which is not the usual story for an APPG”.

Andrew Bridgen was another prominent contributor to the debate, he recalled the launch of the APPG where he said he “had the pleasure of meeting Dr Aseem Malhotra”. “[Malhotra] made a very strong case for the idea that up to 90% of adverse vaccine reactions are not even being reported”, the North West Leicestershire MP said. 

Aseem Malhotra is a cardiologist and anti-vaccine campaigner, who has been accused of promoting misleading information about the safety of Covid vaccines. He has previously contributed to GB News, including in November 2021, when he quoted research “[showing the] significantly increased risk” of heart attacks brought on by the vaccines. The tweet capturing the moment went viral, amassing over 26,000 retweets and 34,000 likes. 

Full Fact raised concerns about legitimacy of the research Malhotra quoted. 

Bridgen frequently retweets Malhotra’s claims on social media, including a tweet on 11 January, the day of his suspension, which accused the BBC of “censoring things that are true on the covid 19 vaccines”. Malhotra’s tweet added: “People will continue to be maimed & die until the mRNA shots are stopped”.

In a House of Commons adjournment debate before Christmas, Bridgen reiterated his call for vaccinations to end, quoting Aseem Malhotra once more:

Three months ago, one of the most eminent and trusted cardiologists, a man with an international reputation, Dr Aseem Malhotra, published peer-reviewed research that concluded that there should be a complete cessation of the administration of the covid mRNA vaccines for everyone because of clear and robust data of significant harms and little ongoing benefit

Bridgen went on to state that a senior British Heart Foundation figure was involved in “covering up clear data that reveals that the mRNA vaccine increases inflammation of the heart arteries” — something the charity “categorically” denied.

Minister of state for health Maria Caulfied was not impressed. Responding to Bridgen’s point, she said: “I have to say that I strongly disagree with my hon. Friend, not only in the content of his speech, but in the way he derided doctors, scientists and nurses”. She added: “It is important to put on the record that all the vaccines used in the UK are safe”.

Intervening on the minister, Bridgen explained away her condemnation: “The claims about the number of lives saved worldwide by the vaccination are sponsored by vested interests. The modelling is the lowest form of scientific evidence — in fact, it is more science fiction than science fact”.

Despite heavy criticism over his repeated claims, Bridgen has won support from individuals including GB News presenter Neil Oliver. “What is being alleged about the so-called vaccines is of monumental importance. What Bridgen and Malhotra have claimed ought to be the biggest story in the country, in the world”, Oliver said in a recent appearance.

Reclaim Party leader Laurence Fox has also platformed Bridgen on his efforts to have the vaccine roll-out suspended — as has GB News presenter Mark Dolan. 

A steady descent 

Bridgen’s steady descent into the realm of anti-vax conspiracy theories appears to have come as the culmination of months of increasing radicalisation on the topic. 

Beginning with lockdown scepticism, Bridgen soon turned to the cause of vaccine “damages”, an issue initially championed by Christopher Chope. He has pursued this line vigorously both in public and in private, with The Independent reporting that Bridgen has badgered government ministers for months over this issue. 

As we have seen with a number of other Conservative MPs, lockdown criticism need not tend to an all out assault on the efficacy and safety of vaccines. But for Bridgen, it appears to have been the beginning of a downward-spiral of evermore extreme criticism regarding Covid-related policy.

After his roundly condemned tweet on Wednesday, Bridgen now sits as an independent MP. Unfortunately for the perennial rebel, it means he will not be able to continue his streak of calling for a vote of no confidence in every Conservative prime minister he has come across in parliament. 

However, a question remains over whether the MP could regain entry into the party before the next election. Conservative MP Andrew Percy, who is the vice chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on anti-Semitism, is one of many concerned individuals who have demanded Bridgen be told that he cannot stand in his North West Leicestershire seat come 2024. 

“I don’t think anybody who believes this kind of crap should [be in parliament]”, Percy told Times Radio.