Vernon Coleman: how the Pandemic has brought some unpleasant people new fame

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Mark Hornehttp://www.merseysideskeptics.org.uk/
Mark Horne is a board member of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. He currently works as Development Manager at a university and has been a fundraiser, copywriter, researcher and campaigner.

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After more than forty years working as a GP, Vernon Coleman relinquished his license to practise medicine in 2016. Some of us might plan to spend our retirement tending to our garden or by taking up crown green bowling, but Coleman has other ways of keeping busy: he is the prolific author of “over 100 books”, with a number of titles, covers and synopses which have to be seen to be believed. His book How To Stop Your Doctor Killing You is a prime example – if my consultant wielded a hammer as aggressively as the medic on the cover of Coleman’s book, I’d hurry to seek a second opinion. 

If all that wasn’t enough, he has also spent the last two years as an extremely vocal anti-mask, anti-vaccine campaigner, who has advocated a slew of conspiracy theories in a series of online videos, on social media, and even at live events in Trafalgar Square

These videos make their way across the internet and can cause immense worry, especially as the messages are being delivered by a man who qualified as a medical doctor and makes sure every viewer knows it. What the unwary and vaccine-hesitant may not know about Coleman is his unpleasant history of advocating for offensive and baseless nonsense, so a quick look back through his career seems in order.

Vernon Coleman on HIV / AIDS

In the 1980s Coleman wrote in a Sun newspaper column that AIDS was, effectively, a hoax, and that it was not a significant risk to heterosexual people. Lest anyone think his views on this have changed in the last four decades in light of the overwhelming evidence that HIV / AIDS is real, and that heterosexual people in the UK and around the world remain at significant risk from the virus, he currently has a whole section dedicated to AIDS and HIV on his website, in which he makes a variety of claims, including: 

“I now strongly suspect that I was wrong even to accept that there was (or is) a link between HIV and AIDS.”

“I believe that gay pressure groups (working to make sure that AIDS did not become established as a ‘gay’ disease’) were responsible for the initial development of the ‘plague’ myth.”

“Does AIDS actually exist?… I suspect that the answer is that it doesn’t.”

Coleman has repeatedly downplayed HIV / AIDS, despite the disease having killed an estimated 37 million people

Vernon Coleman on autism

Coleman wrote in a 1995 Sunday People column that many autistic children simply needed to “learn some manners”, and suggested a disgusting “cure” that I won’t dignify by repeating here, in an article that earned him a reprimand from the Press Complaints Commission. 

He’s since gone on to repeat a very tired and long-since discredited supposed link between vaccines and autism, and it is worth noting that he still uses scare quotes when referring to autism. 

Vernon Coleman on people with disabilities

Coleman has said that the NHS guaranteeing that it will interview all disabled job candidates who meet the essential job criteria is “utterly outrageous”, and that it amounted to “discrimination against the able-bodied”. 

This referred, as far as I can tell, to the Positive About Disabled People / Two Ticks guaranteed interview scheme, now replaced by Disability Confident. Such schemes are intended to ensure that disabled candidates who meet the essential criteria are interviewed by employers participating in these schemes, as well as a number of other measures of supporting and including disabled people in the workplace. While they have been critiqued as “hollow” and “tokenistic”, with serious concerns about their overall effectiveness, they are used by around half of FTSE 100 companies, and are absolutely legal under the Equality Act

Vernon Coleman on the NHS

A close up of a stethoscope

Coleman wrote in 2007 that the NHS “kills more people than it saves”, that it has too much money, that NHS employees do their best to avoid work, consider patients a nuisance, and that nurses are “lazy”. 

You might wonder what knowledge and evidence has brought Coleman to this conclusion. As Dr Marc Cornock notes in his review of Coleman’s book Do Doctors and Nurses Kill More People Than Cancer?

The author’s statement that there is no need for references because readers should trust him does not sit comfortably with me and I would have preferred to see the sources for some of his assertions.

Unsourced statements likewise sit uncomfortably with me, and I see no reason to trust Coleman ahead of my own experiences as a patient with the NHS, which while not always perfect, overwhelmingly suggest that most NHS staff are diligent, hard-working and extremely concerned with their patients’ wellbeing. 

This being The Skeptic Magazine, of course, I would be remiss if I relied solely on anecdote, so regarding claims about doctors killing more people than cancer and the NHS killing more than it saves, we can turn to Jonathan Jarry’s detailed take-down of the oft-repeated claim that medical error is one of the leading causes of all deaths. Jarry helpfully summarises his arguments thus: 

A popular claim that medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States originated in a 2016 back-of-the-envelope analysis published in the British Medical Journal.

This ranking is an exaggeration that was arrived at by combining a small number of studies done in populations that were not meant to be representative of the entire U.S. population and that were not designed to prove a link between a medical error and death

Kills more people than it saves? Of course not. 

But Coleman goes further, and in the same 2007 post says:

The NHS is run for the benefit of large drug companies which make fortunes out of flogging useless drugs to gullible patients.

The idea that the NHS is run for the benefit of pharmaceutical companies would come as a surprise to many, not least the pharmaceutical companies themselves, who it is widely accepted lose on average 25% of their revenue when they have to negotiate with a single-payer system such as the NHS, compared with private insurance-based systems such as exist in the USA. There are, of course, accusations that companies do take advantage of the NHS at times, but comparisons between the UK and the US remain stark, with prices that can be ten times higher for asthma medications, and hundreds of times higher for some more specialist drugs

As for the idea that drugs are useless, this is just absurd, as can be seen if we return to the example of HIV:

Studies show that a person living with HIV has a similar life expectancy to an HIV-negative person – providing they are diagnosed in good time, have good access to medical care, and are able to adhere to their HIV treatment.

So a person living with HIV now has a life expectancy of decades, rather than a few years or even months, thanks in significant part to the drugs developed by pharmaceutical companies. 

The sort of argument that Coleman advances here is common among those who subscribe to conspiracy theories about the evils of “Big Pharma”, and fourteen years later Coleman is still saying similar things:

Big pharma, the international pharmaceutical industry, never sleeps and is always desperate to prove that when it comes to crookedness and death loving products they can defeat the Columbian drug cartel any day of the week… The drug companies are the worst.

Vernon Coleman on cancer

Before Covid, Coleman’s views on cancer were perhaps his most eye-catching health claims. He is pretty negative about cancer screening, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and even surgery

Even when chemotherapy (or radiotherapy) does succeed in apparently ‘killing’ a cancer… there is a considerable risk that the cancer will recur. When you stop and think about it this isn’t difficult to understand for chemotherapy (or radiotherapy or surgery for that matter) does absolutely nothing to alter the circumstances which led to the cancer developing in the first place.

In essence, treatments don’t cure cancer because cancer, according to Coleman, is caused by a body being weakened by poor diet, stress, environment and toxins: 

…it isn’t only poor food that causes cancer. Another factor is, I believe, our constant exposure to a polluted environment. The very air we breathe is frequently heavily polluted. Our bodies, weakened by poor food and too much stress, simply cannot cope with the enormous quantities of pollutants and contaminants.

Of course everyone knows that smoking causes cancer and that exercise, diet and weight are all contributing risk factors, but your genetic inheritance accounts for up to 10% of cancer, and simple ageing is far and away the biggest risk factor: only 1% of cancer patients are under 24, while more than half are over 70. If you are wondering why this is the case:

We develop precancerous cells our whole life, but when we are young, our immune system is very strong, and it is able to target those cells and kill them,” says Dr. Suzi Kochar, an Endocrinologist at our hospital near Phoenix. “With aging, our immune system weakens and may fail to target some of those precancerous cells.

Coleman’s approach, if he were told he had cancer, would be to seek out alternative therapies such as Gerson Therapy, which is not proven to be effective:

A review study in 2014 looked at 13 different cancer diets. The researchers looked at all the previous research on Gerson therapy. They found that none of the previous reports on Gerson therapy proved that it was effective.

He is also enthusiastic about the importance of positive thinking, avoiding stress and visualising his victory over cancer. We’d all love to avoid stress, but once again, studies have shown that positive thinking has no impact on the outcomes or course of the disease for cancer patients, although being emotionally supported can improve wellbeing, ability to cope with cancer treatment, and quality of life. 

Coleman has said that:

the cancer industry will never succeed in beating cancer.

Cancer researchers seem to be doing a remarkable job from where I’m standing, however, given that there are a number of common and treatable cancers which have 90% or higher five-year survival rates, thanks to modern approaches including screening and chemotherapy. 

A final note on Coleman and cancer before we return to COVID-19. Coleman has said

Tackling cancer as though it were an outside agent (such as a virus or a bacterium) simply doesn’t work because cancer is not something that comes in from the outside of the body.

Again, this is a surprising statement, because the majority of cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis and anus are all caused by the outside agent – the virus! known as HPV, as are “70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States.” 

What is HPV? The Human Papillomavirus, for which there is now a safe, effective and widely available vaccine, rather like another prominent disease… 

Vernon Coleman on COVID-19

Vernon Coleman’s history of misleading and false health claims does not, of course, necessarily mean that he is wrong about the current COVID-19 pandemic. It’s his repeatedly incorrect statements about COVID-19 that make him wrong about the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Coleman claims that UK government data shows the pandemic is a hoax. This is not true, and Reuters Fact Check says that Coleman:

manipulates official data to deny that COVID-19 caused increased mortality. In fact, ONS figures demonstrate that deaths during the pandemic’s peak were well above the five-year average.

a gloved hand holding a vaccine ampoule

Coleman has said that the vaccine roll-out is “not a medical treatment, it is a cull” and has described it as “murder”. It is a tragedy for those who have died as a result of taking the vaccine, but the numbers who have died following vaccine complications are very low indeed. Although the exact number of people who died as a result of the COVID-19 vaccine in the UK is rather complicated to unpick, however you count, the chance of dying from the vaccine is orders of magnitude smaller than the likelihood of dying from COVID-19 itself. 

This claim of supposed mass-murder appears repeatedly from Coleman, who has linked the vaccine programmes to Agenda 21 and The Great Reset conspiracy theories, as he believes an “evil elite” plan to “kill between 90 and 95% of the world’s population.” Even if you accept the implausibility of this evil elite somehow persuading almost 200 governments around the world to approve the use of 25 different vaccines in total, with 8 billion doses in total administered to date, why are we all still here? When does the “cull” begin? What are the evil elites waiting for?

Coleman has also said that he believes that the vaccine programme is an experimental trial, and that “all those people giving vaccinations are war criminals.” The vaccines were, of course, only rolled out after relevant authorities in the UK, USA, China, Europe, Russia and around the world gave emergency authorisation following the conclusion of trials that demonstrated safety and efficacy. PolitiFact has judged Coleman’s claims here to be both “inaccurate and ridiculous”. 

In August 2021, Coleman spoke at a Trafalgar Square “Freedom Rally”, attended by the likes of Katie Hopkins, Piers Corbyn, David Icke and Kate Shemirani, a former nurse and anti-vaxxer “who compared people delivering coronavirus vaccines to Nazi doctors who were hung.” During his speech, Coleman claimed that “COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the flu”. This is incorrect; COVID-19 is, in fact, between five and ten times more deadly than influenza.

Finally, on that favourite topic of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists; masks. At the same Trafalgar Square speech, Coleman claimed that he is aware of “100 scientific papers, proving conclusively that masks do more harm than good”, and stated that “it’s been proven that they don’t do any good”. I’m not sure what hundred papers Coleman was referring to, but here’s an evidence review that comes to the opposite conclusion: 

The preponderance of evidence indicates that mask wearing reduces transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected respiratory particles in both laboratory and clinical contexts.

I’ll take my medical advice from the world’s leading researchers, rather than social media chats given by a retired GP, thanks: I’ve had my booster, I’ll keep wearing face masks and I’ll hope that people ignore Vernon Coleman, because the more people remain unvaccinated, the more variants we will see, and the longer this pandemic will keep going on. 

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