Why is a dance music promoter blaming doctors and scientists for creating mental health problems?

On 27th July, Sacha Lord posted the following on Twitter:

Sacha Lord is the co-founder of a dance music club series in Manchester called the Warehouse Project, and of the music festival Parklife. The Warehouse Project has been running since 2006, and vast numbers of artists have performed at it over the years. It is an integral part of the UK’s dance music ecosystem. Lord is also politically active, and in 2018 was appointed as Night Time Economy Adviser for Greater Manchester by the city’s Labour mayor, Andy Burnham.

This blog piece is not intended as an ad hominem attack. Lord comes across as someone sincerely committed to music culture, to Manchester’s night time industries, and to helping hospitality through the pandemic. His track record in these areas is impressive. He is also far from the only figure in dance music to make anti-lockdown statements. There have been mass protests around this issue. What he has to say on the subject is worth taking seriously precisely because it can be read as an indicator of a widespread position in the dance music industry as a whole – the tip of an iceberg. His comments matter not so much as an expression of his personal views, but because of his profile, reputation and influence within the UK dance music industry and beyond.

During the pandemic, Lord has been vocal in lobbying for the re-opening of hospitality, including bringing legal cases against the government. He was a key figure in the UnitedWeStream Manchester initiative, running live streams to bring in donations to support night time economy businesses in Manchester during the lockdowns. He has previously campaigned on issues such as drug safety and the mental health of workers in hospitality. His account has over 125,000 followers on Twitter.

So his anti-lockdown statements can’t be dismissed as ‘just one person’s opinion’, because they form part of how the night time industries are being represented regionally and nationally. His words carry weight.

The overall gist of his position – looking both at the Tweet above and other statements he has made through the pandemic – is that the most recent UK lockdown was excessive, that it caused unnecessary harm to the hospitality and night time economy sectors, and that it should have been lifted earlier for these sectors. These claims have been made widely by campaigners for hospitality, including by bodies such as the Night Time Industries Association.

This position emphasises the core message “we need to reopen”, but does little to acknowledge concerns about reopening, or focus on what the sector can do (and is doing) to address those concerns. Looking at the Events Research Programme phase 1 report, as I noted in a previous post, there are well founded reasons for concern about reopening hospitality, particularly clubs. There are real world examples where problems have occurred. A music festival in the Netherlands in early July led to over 1000 COVID infections despite requiring a negative test or proof of vaccination before entry.

Looking in more detail at the specifics of the Tweet above, it starts by highlighting the daily drop in the recorded number of people testing positive for COVID. It notes that caution is needed in interpreting this figure, which makes sense given that daily fluctuations aren’t always indicative of longer term trends in the data.

This focus on data and caution then switches abruptly to a reference to “Lockdown fanatics”. The implication is that those who urged greater caution in lifting restrictions were obsessive, crazed or deluded. Etymologically, fanatic derives from the Latin fanum which means “temple”. A ‘fanatic’ was someone in the grip of a religious fervour or devotion, akin to a zealot.

Then the Tweet switches back to evidence and reason, with “All eyes on ONS figures on Friday.” This is a reference to the ONS Coronavirus Infection Survey, which is a more accurate indicator of levels of disease than the daily positive test statistics. Its methodology is fairly robust and described here.

The rhetorical effect of these switching statements is to position Lord as someone who values evidence, data and cautious interpretation. Those who supported lockdowns, by contrast, are portrayed as driven by irrational belief. The effect is a kind of ‘turning the tables’ – an inversion of positions, in which a dance music promoter and lockdown sceptic appears on the side of reason, while the scientists who called for lockdown are derided as delusional fanatics.

The scene is then set for a final line which rolls together two extremely problematic claims.

“If they are positive [i.e. if the ONS figures show a fall in COVID], these “Independent” Dr’s/scientists should publicly apologies (sic) for the widespread mental health problems they have created.”

The first claim is implied by the scare quotes around “independent”. The implication of this sarcastic punctuation is that pro-lockdown doctors and scientists pretend to be independent, but in fact are advancing a hidden agenda.

That would be a serious allegation. Anyone with evidence of undue influence on scientists then they should pass it on to the institutions for which the scientists work. If not, making vague public statements questioning the integrity of un-named professionals is unhelpful. It risks sowing distrust, and fuelling the conspiracy theories already circulating in the anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine movement*.

Second, Lord makes the claim that doctors and scientists have ‘created’ mental health problems. He suggests that if ONS data show the pandemic to be receding in the UK, then these doctors and scientists should offer a public apology for the damage they have done.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this. At risk of stating the obvious, it is politicians who order lockdowns, not doctors or scientists. And in the UK, ministers have made so many egregious mistakes during the pandemic, it is difficult to understand how anyone could look seriously at the UK’s COVID response, and conclude that blame for the impact on mental health should be laid primarily at the door of doctors and scientists. It would be like booking a DJ who shows up late and off his head on pills, trainwrecks every mix, clears the dancefloor, and in response you decide to fire the sound engineer.

Doctors have worked tirelessly on the front lines of this pandemic. Many have experienced mental health problems themselves due to the stress. A survey in 2020 found that 43% reported worsening mental health during the pandemic. If people in the night time industries want to build solidarity around their cause rather than create division, one way would be to recognise that people across many different sectors have been more susceptible to mental health problems during the pandemic – hospitality workers, DJs, performers, promoters, but also doctors, nurses, teachers and many others.

As for the public health scientists to which Lord seems to be referring, they have also made a huge collective effort to help the country get through the pandemic, by gathering data and modelling the impacts of different scenarios in order to advise the UK government and devolved administrations.

Yet doctors and scientists have become targets of abuse from anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine trolls. It is this wider context that makes Lord’s remarks particularly troubling. The Chief Medical Officer for England, Chris Whitty, was recently verbally abused in public by a teenager who accused him of lying. And just days before Lord’s Tweet, the COVID denier and conspiracy theorist Kate Shemirani gave a speech at an anti-lockdown rally in Trafalgar Square, in which she made comments implying that UK doctors should face a similar fate to the Nazi doctors who were tried at Nuremberg after World War II.

Let’s be clear about what this comparison means, because again this is not just a view put forward by one person. References to Nuremberg circulate widely in anti-vaccine circles. The Nazi doctors put on trial at Nuremberg had experimented on humans in ways that constituted torture. They had also carried out programs of euthanasia, systematically killing people with disabilities, mental illnesses, old people, Jews and other ethnic minorities. To compare the doctors delivering COVID vaccines with these Nazi doctors is beyond disgraceful.

In a context where such comparisons are being made, particularly on social media, it seems irresponsible for someone in a position of cultural leadership to blame doctors and scientists for negative effects of the pandemic. Lord’s intention may simply be to support the night time industries, but to do so by aligning with the anti-lockdown movement and courting its support is dangerous. Does the dance music industry really want people like Shemirani, Piers Corbyn, David Icke and their followers as fellow travellers?

To sum up, the anti-lockdown strain within dance music is clearly a much bigger issue than public statements made by one person. The point of critically analysing these statements is to think about the wider implications, of someone so high profile making claims such as these without any apparent accountability beyond a few critical replies under a Tweet.

What are the values of the dance music industry, when one of its leaders is getting masses of retweets and likes for blaming mental health problems on doctors and scientists? Are dance music artists and fans happy to have these kinds of statements coming from someone who is representing our culture?

*I have used the terms ‘anti-lockdown’ and ‘anti-vaccine’ interchangeably in this post. Clearly these are two separate things, but in practice the movements advocating for them overlap to a large extent. The night time industries lobby might want to portray themselves as anti-lockdown but not anti-vaccine – but in that case, they would need to do a much better job of explicitly distancing themselves from the anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists.

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