A-Z

Covid-19 in the community

Sources of information about Covid

People we spoke to drew on different sources of information to understand the pandemic. Types of information that were important were how to identify symptoms and what the rules and guidance were at the time. People we spoke to sometimes struggled to make sense of conflicting opinions. In this section we discuss:

  • Mainstream news and public information from official sources 
  • Social media
  • Other people’s experiences of Covid
  • 'Fake news’, rumours and conspiracy theories
  • Making sense of information when there are different views

 
Mainstream news and public information from official sources 

During the first two years of the pandemic there were daily updates on the number of infections, people in hospital with Covid, and deaths. These were reported on official websites and broadcast media like the news reports on tv and radio. 

Several people told us that they paid close attention to BBC news updates and to the regular news conferences with Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister at the time.
 

 

Emdad watched BBC News at 10pm every day. He worried when the numbers were going up and was hopeful when they dropped.

Emdad watched BBC News at 10pm every day. He worried when the numbers were going up and was hopeful when they dropped.

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Because every day we would like make a habit of watching BBC News at ten o’clock. We just go, “What is the infection rate today? How many people, what is the death rate, how many people died like this?” So, every day we see the tally and we see that it’s going higher, higher, higher and was worried about what happen. When it’s like the death rate had gone down, then we were so happy like our favourite team on the game penalty, you know, like shoot out, we are, yes, yes, yes, but there’s still people dying but we were happy that it’s less people dying, not that many people.


 
In 'The Pandemic becomes real’ we discussed that even though numbers were alarming it was often only when someone close became ill that people took the pandemic seriously.
 
At government news conferences the Prime Minister Boris Johnson was often seen with the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Chris Whitty, and Chief Scientific Advisor Professor Sir Patrick Vallance. These public figures became widely known because of their regular television appearances. Matt and others commented that the scientists added credibility to the government announcements of restrictions and ‘lock-down’ rules.
 
Zubair signed up for a daily news feed and added his own data through the Zoe app, which tracked reports of symptoms, vaccinations and test results of over 4 million people across the country. Some people we spoke to found reading daily news about Covid exhausting. Irene wasn’t sure how much she really wanted to know. Mr. Eshaan said that he always watched the news but turned it off when his wife became anxious.
 
 

Karin stopped looking at the news when it became too overwhelming and time-consuming.

Karin stopped looking at the news when it became too overwhelming and time-consuming.

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Television, you know, I ahhhh, my mother is a television addict, you know, news so I’ve got that in my blood but there were weeks when I couldn’t turn on the television at all because uh it was just too overwhelming, and it made me angry and upset so I stopped that. But when I was watching I could not turn it off so it’s that or nothing and what it does to you, you kind of know where so yeah it was media, media, media, media, radio, radio and television, Sky, CNN, BBC News, you know, flick, flick, flick, flick, flick of.

 

Elvis first heard about coronavirus on the BBC news and then searched online.

Elvis first heard about coronavirus on the BBC news and then searched online.

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How I started to hear about coronavirus, because I used to work, I watch the news so much, I was watching BBC. How I had, I watch it from the BBC talking about the new virus coming in from China, you know. In the in that village called Wuhan I think, you know. And then they were talking about it you know, how, but, at that time, I was not quite sure how, you know, when you get it what happens to you, how does it affect people, you know, how people can get it. But we were, I were concerned for my friends. How, oh my god, this virus is killing so many people and this and that and this and that, you know. What is it happening? Why? Who brought it, you know? And I will get more information, you know that Chinese people ate frogs, and they ate different things, you know. And then it, they ate animals that they shouldn’t be eating and from these animals they, they caught the virus and then it got transmitted to other people, and how we started to be transmitted from, one people to another, from one area to another, and then from one country to another. Oh it was a mess, how I heard what is coronavirus.


 
People told us about their frustration with confusing and contradictory government messaging about things like:

  • The benefits of mask wearing
  • Which symptoms to look out for
  • Whether and when to seek help
  • What to do if they had been in contact with someone who was Covid positive

 
Several people commented that this was particularly bad in the early months of the pandemic, but confusion was common when official rules and guidance changed.
 

 

Rabbi Woollenberg received three different sets of advice about how long to isolate for.

Rabbi Woollenberg received three different sets of advice about how long to isolate for.

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The other thing we didn’t even talk about or just mention is that, because it was in the news today is this whole business of test and trace and its effectiveness. The NHS staff when I had to go into hospital were wonderful. The people on the phone were next to useless. Even the Covid line. I remember one time, one of our kids had tested positive; it was quite early on. We called three different times and got three different answers about when the isolation period was. And then called Public Health England because as a place of worship we had to speak to them, and they gave us a completely different answer as well, and it was like the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing. And generally speaking, it was pretty much you called NHS 111 or later 119, and basically if you, if you could manage the symptoms yourself, that was pretty much it. Now they’ve got more welfare in place, but it was pretty much “right, are you okay, you’re not dying so you know, just stay at home.” Which you know, doesn’t help your anxieties.

 

Temitope first thought Covid was transmitted through touch, but later learnt that the virus passed through the air.

Temitope first thought Covid was transmitted through touch, but later learnt that the virus passed through the air.

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It was a bit confusing then. Before, I think when it first came in, I thought it was by touching, never knew it could be spread by air, I just thought it was more or less touching, so you need so, no handshakes, then you need to just put, use hand sanitiser. Then later, we knew that we heard it going, Covid passed through air. Then later we were told that it could actually stay in air for a number of hours or so then it will have, maybe somebody has passed some minutes or hours and you passed it so yeah, the ways that which you could catch it was a bit confusing and again, that also, I understood that, because it’s a new virus, everyone is trying to investigate so there’s a probability that we might get things wrong. I mean the scientists, the government might get things wrong, and they will keep trying until they get it right, so I wasn’t really bothered. That’s why I stayed indoors.


 
People also told us that they felt uncertain about what the ‘rules’ were at different times during the pandemic or in different parts of the UK when restrictions varied between regions.
 
 

Cat, a student in Wales, spent a lot of time ‘Googling the rules’.

Cat, a student in Wales, spent a lot of time ‘Googling the rules’.

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I think, my mum kept saying a lot of, to be fair, a lot of my information came from my mum, because she was kind of like my fact checker that I’d go “Is this correct, is this not correct?” She kept saying she was like “Outside very low risk. Inside an enclosed space is quite a high risk even if you wear a mask, close contact”, things like sharing drinking glasses I would assume and then yeah. Information probably, I mean the uni was putting out information but they were just as guilty in my eyes as the government, because they were still taking 9 grand off us, but telling us we need to stay home. “Oh, wait no come back, oh wait no go home.” So yeah, information probably, I mean I spent a lot of time I feel like especially when things got a bit panicked, Googling what the rules were. And I found it quite difficult to ascertain what the actual rule that applied to me was, according to the government advice, so the news probably the government website and my parents, were my main sources of information.


 
Some people we talked to said they did not trust the government or the mainstream news. Some thought that data was being manipulated to blame the people who became ill or died. Irene was against the idea that there were more deaths among black people because of their behaviours. Instead, she thought that it was the major inequalities in working and living conditions that meant some people were more exposed to the virus than others (see Risk from exposure).

Social media

Social media including WhatsApp groups, Facebook and Twitter became a major source of connection and information for many people we spoke to during the pandemic. While some people criticised these online sources as ‘echo chambers’, where people only hear from others with similar ideas, we also heard positive stories of social media as an important channel for health and care workers or faith leaders to circulate information and help dismiss rumours.
 

 

Sam X got information about Covid from Twitter threads and friends as well as some government sources and mainstream news.

Sam X got information about Covid from Twitter threads and friends as well as some government sources and mainstream news.

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I was able to keep track of things on Twitter. There was a lot of useful, a lot of useful stuff on social media like things broken down into twitter threads that made it a lot easier to understand. And I got a little bit from the government and the news and things and other, and then also a bit from friends explaining it to me.

 

Gulsoom says that community messaging via social media was taken more seriously than government or mainstream news.

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Gulsoom says that community messaging via social media was taken more seriously than government or mainstream news.

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But I think because a lot of people around our community circle weren’t actually getting Covid symptoms and we didn’t hear of anyone losing anyone with Covid, I think people were just like on the fence thinking, “How much of this is actually true?” Like, “What is the government saying to us?” Like, you know, “Is there really something called Coronavirus?” And, you know, “What’s actually happening?” But I think as well we started seeing on social media, the news, messages being circulated on Whatsapp, Snapchat, Instagram, that’s when it became apparent to people and people started showcasing them losing loved ones, then actually getting Covid, I think that’s when people thought, “Oh my god, I know I know that person. That person lives up the road.” You know, “That person is that person’s relative.” So I think everybody started to realise that people are actually getting Covid. People are actually passing away and I think that’s when it became apparent that this is serious, you know. We need to do something about this.


 
Laurie became active on social media as part of a group of people with long Covid who were keen to raise awareness of the condition. She eventually made the decision to withdraw from social media. When struggling with the illness itself, constant connection and hostile responses all became too much. 

Other people’s experiences of Covid 

Some people were relieved to discover that there were others who were living with similar symptoms, especially those which were not the ‘big three’. Hearing about what others were going through was particularly important for people who were unwell many weeks after their initial illness – the group we would now recognise as having ‘long Covid'.
  
There was a lot of variety in experiences of illness with Covid, but sometimes people found a close match on a website or on the radio. Sam found a few patients’ stories online which helped them feel less alone. Matt heard a journalist talking about their Covid infection after being double vaccinated and was surprised how similar this experience was to his own.
 
Hospital workers and care home staff sometimes gave media interviews or wrote articles or blogs about what it was like in their sector when they were trying to cope with waves of seriously ill people. Their stories were harrowing and hard to ignore. 

‘Fake news’, rumours and conspiracy theories 

Many of the people we talked to referred to ‘fake news’, rumours, conspiracy theories, whispering, or ‘stupid arguments’ as a particular feature of information during the pandemic. Some of the rumours were a result of unclear public information about vaccination, facemasks and symptoms. Gertrude, talking about long Covid explained that ‘what was out there and what was happening were two different things’. Over time, with more research, a clearer picture has emerged about actions that can effectively limit transmission, such as vaccination and facemasks, and the symptoms typically associated with Covid.
 
There were also more worrying rumours that increased hesitancy among some people we spoke to about taking vaccines and made them worried about going to hospital. One serious rumour people told us about was that people from ethnic minorities were being poorly treated in hospital, or even that there was a government plot to kill them. These rumours mainly circulated on social media and among people who did not use, or did not believe, mainstream news.
 

 

Gulsoom pointed out that negative stories tend to be picked up and circulated much faster than neutral or positive accounts.

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Gulsoom pointed out that negative stories tend to be picked up and circulated much faster than neutral or positive accounts.

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I think, to be honest, with the fake news a lot of people have been spreading fake news about them, so voice messages and we just have these circulating about people going to hospital and nurses trying to kill the patients and that’s been circulated. So one negative case study gets spread on social media within minutes. So something so negative gets circulated so fast but, when you’re sharing a positive case study, that’s not getting circulated as fast as a negative case study. So videos were being circulated within the community  don’t take your loved ones to hospital, this, so maybe because of the nurse, well, nurses are giving so, I don’t even know where they’re getting this sort of intel from but I, but it’s getting circulated to the community. Also nurses are all in it with the government. They’ve got a contract with the government.


 
Some of the most effective challenges to these conspiracy theories came from trusted members of the community – for example a nurse working at the local hospital reassuring people that treatment was safe or hearing from people who did their own research changed their views.
 
 

Tony found it persuasive when some ‘anti-vaxxer’ friends changed their minds about the safety of the vaccine.

Tony found it persuasive when some ‘anti-vaxxer’ friends changed their minds about the safety of the vaccine.

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A couple of reasons; I’ve got a couple of friends who I call “intelligent”, and they were like anti-vaxxers to begin with and they kind of changed their tune through all that and says, “I’ve had it.” So, I have to say that influenced me because, you know, as I said, I don’t know, I don’t have the answers. Who does? I don’t have the answers so you’re listening to people but you, you’re listening to people who are educated, who can explain the pros and cons and, you know, I’ve still got friends of mine now who are refusing to have the vaccine and, you know, saying ‘Oh it’s, it’s conspiracy theory this-, you know, some people are really strongly against it, and I’ve had a couple of people who are anti-vaxxers who’ve got Covid and they’ve been really, really sick from it as well.

 

Emdad said that a senior Imam issued a statement to confirm that Muslims were able to be vaccinated to counter fake news.

Emdad said that a senior Imam issued a statement to confirm that Muslims were able to be vaccinated to counter fake news.

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Rumour come from is, you know, the society, they find people. When you find someone, get hear something, they get a message, they pass it to others and by this service it is spreading very quick and maybe someone without judgment, they just believe in it. Before believing you have to justify it because these things, whether there is halal or haram, it need to come from authorised person. If they say it is haram, okay, we follow you. If they say it is halal, they follow but we should only listen to about this halal or haram need to come from authorised person, authorised person in our community, maybe our Imam, like a head of the mosque. And you know the East London Mosque is the largest mosque in Europe. There is a there is a head of the Imam. If they declare this, this is fine, they should follow because they go, they study, they have all the information, then they can pass it to them, then we know this is legitimate social information and you can, you can have this information not by whispering from other or getting the message, email message from others and believing it.

 
Making sense of information when there are different views

Some people we spoke to tried to gather information from a number of different sources. This included searching online or through social media to find out more about news items.
 

 

Matthew discussed the pandemic with colleagues, listened to the BBC and read different newspapers to get a variety of perspectives.

Matthew discussed the pandemic with colleagues, listened to the BBC and read different newspapers to get a variety of perspectives.

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You know, I work in an open office next to eight other people and we were just talking about it and we were just discussing how crazy it was that there was this new virus. I was joking with people saying, “Well, we are due a virus because they come along, you know, every hundred years.” You have to look at the Spanish flu and then before that there was another flu. And I was totally unconcerned about it because I thought, yeah, whatever it is, it can’t be that bad, you know. Maybe there’s a few restrictions but I never envisaged the whole country would lockdown and that we would still be suffering with the consequences of it. But, in terms of actual research, it was just what I was reading on the BBC or the Guardian. I like to read the BBC, the Guardian and the Daily Mail so I get a different viewpoint on all the news.


 
Doreen found herself gathering news from the American station CNN as well as other news channels. She was interested in how different stories and reports were presented. As Matt pointed out, information is not in a vacuum and people might trust or mistrust the same information depending on who is speaking and how they hear it.
 
 

Matt found that there are lots of different perspectives on what was ‘true’ about Covid.

Matt found that there are lots of different perspectives on what was ‘true’ about Covid.

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I think one of the issues was credible sources at the time that weren’t either over exaggerating and I think that’s just a, a slight problem with British society at the moment. It’s the lack of credible authority. Where do you go to find viable untainted view on any subject, frankly? You know, you gotta, I think you've just sort of look to those sources that you've found in the past that sort of ex post facto you could rely on. And you know, which is why you might trust the Financial Times and broaden your trust the Daily Express or whatever your political views. But you, you, I think we’re all becoming much more conscious of the role we play individually in constructing the truth that we think applies to different scenarios and I don’t and I think pandemics would be included in, in that. You know, there’re people, I have a younger, say younger relative in his 30s who says he’s not an anti-vaxxer, but he’s just read so much that it’s more likely to do him harm to have a vaccine than not, you know. But that’s his version of the truth from what he and his presumably his cohort and his immediate group of friends honestly believe. I mean, why would he believe anything otherwise? It’s just his sphere of influence happens to be different from mine. And, you know, I’m slightly more convinced of my thinking than I am of his. But I think it does go partly to that problem of where is the reliable touchstone? Who, who do you, who do you trust, you know?

 

Shaista got information from news and personal connections. She has also learnt a lot through listening to people talk about their experiences.

Shaista got information from news and personal connections. She has also learnt a lot through listening to people talk about their experiences.

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So I read a lot, I read lots of different publications but I have to say that overwhelmingly, what’s enabled me to understand how horrific this pandemic is actually the connections I have with people who’ve lost people and in my community, I mean other than ones in my community as far as I’m concerned but, you know, people often specific from working class South Asian communities who’ve been hit very badly, lost loved ones, we’ve lost loved ones. Have a lots of friends who are doctors who are just devastated. Nurses, I have friends who are nurses. One of my friends is a senior consultant, he, he is a migrant doctor and he contacted me quite early on to say he was absolutely terrified of dying of Covid and his family being deported back to Pakistan and he was really scared of this and he was just giving me chapter and verse and what’s happening at work and then he kept telling me, “You can’t tell anyone, you can’t tell anyone.” I said, “Well I would never betray your confidence so I never tell anyone, but you can’t just keep this to yourself,” and then month by month more and more people were telling me the same stories over and over again and so the information I’ve been getting is from people I know personally who are frontline medical workers.

 
 
It was sometimes hard to know who or what to believe, particularly because new information about the virus was emerging all the time. People whose social or family circle included a doctor, nurse or other health worker would often value the informal advice from an expert who they had no reason to doubt.
 
Others relied on close family members or friends who they knew would want the best for them. Cat, a student, said that her mum was her ‘main fact checker’. Many of the people we talked to recommended being cautious about what to believe and double-checking information received through a single source.

 

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