I ADMIT I am a sentimental soul and the Scotland of the past gets me going. A memory of a dead relative, a famous building razed to the ground by progress, or a half-remembered song from my childhood can get me going. But despite a propensity for tearful nostalgia, I am a very robust soul when it comes to snake oil.

The past few months have been boom times for people trying to sell simple solutions to complex problems, whether it is public health or supplying overpriced kit to care centres.

The Covid-19 virus has created exactly the kind of anxious and febrile atmosphere in which conspiracy theories mutate and television presenters from the Alan Partridge school of clichés can cheerfully speculate. This week, ITV presenter Eamonn Holmes was the subject of scrutiny by Ofcom after an ill-advised series of comments on the origins of the virus, in which he seemed to give oxygen to the discredited theory that it is connected to 5G networks and originates from the Chinese telecommunications industry.

There were up to 500 complaints to the regulator, which paradoxically oversees broadcast licences and regulates telecommunications and mobile telephone masts.

The 5G myth is so active in the minds of conspiracy theorists that mobile masts are being vandalised across the UK, including one in the Birmingham area that provides connectivity to vital hospital services and another in Ayrshire, where a mobile phone mast was set on fire leaving thousands of phone customers with no signal.

The last thing Ofcom needs is the myth being given status or substance by traditional broadcasters. After an online backlash, Holmes apologised for suggesting that denying the 5G myth may “suit the state narrative’’.

Those unforgiving souls that were not convinced by his apology were quick to draw attention to the presenter’s other recent gaffes – making a questionable hot tub joke after Phillip Schofield come out as a gay on air and giving fuel to everyday racism by calling Meghan Markle ‘‘uppity’’.

The most damaging thing about Holmes’s comments is that they play to the worries of the weak. In a fascinating feature by the Irish Times writer Conor Gallagher, it is claimed that conspiracy theorists share a trait with problem gamblers – they both suffer from “apophenia; defined as the tendency to perceive connections between unrelated things”.

When the conspiracy theories surrounding Covid-19 are examined in the fullness of time, Holmes will be a bizarre footnote barely worthy of scrutiny, but many much more serious and globally sensitive theories are out there undermining public confidence. This week the doyen of traditional American journalism The Washington Post published a detailed dossier on the myths and how they have spread. The feature opens with a conundrum: “Of all the mysteries about the novel coronavirus, its origin excites the most fervent debate. At the outbreak’s beginning, there were conspiracy theories that the virus was manmade; recently, questions have focused on whether a natural virus was accidentally spread through research.’’

In the context of a bullish Trump administration dominating American airwaves, speculation about dirty tricks emanating from China has grown. It has been given weight by hawkish politicians on the right wing of the political spectrum and from Trump’s familiar cheerleaders, Fox News and the Breitbart News Network.

The ideas have spread from there to the already contaminated corridors of social media. Such is the deluge of rubbish circulating, Facebook has announced that it will show messages to people who have interacted with misinformation and direct them to more reliable facts.

According to researchers at Dublin City University who study online disinformation, there were very few mentions of the conspiracy theory online before mid-March. This changed suddenly and recklessly when a prominent Irish far-right conspiracy theorist started posting videos on what they called the “corona charade” or the “scamdemic”. In one video they stated ventilators should not be used for Covid-19 patients “because it’s probably wifi poisoning”.

Another deranged idea is that the set-piece applause for frontline workers was set up in order to generate noise that would cancel out the humming sound of 5G transmitters as they were tested, undetected by local communities.

Set against the inherent gossipy nature of conspiracy theorists science has been a weak counterpoint. Scientists are often reluctant to comment, either because they are focusing on the real issues raised by the pandemic or bound by their own version of a Hippocratic oath, which cautions against comment until research is completed, peer-reviewed and verified. Gossips are less easily drawn to facts

The Washington Post has identified the most virulent conspiracy theories. Firstly, that the outbreak was linked to bio-weapons research. This theory appears to have originated with Israeli intelligence, who argued that the virus had been manipulated by a laboratory linked to China’s bio warfare programme in Wuhan. The Israelis argue that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had been working on biological warfare.

Set against that is consistent scientific counterargument that there is no evidence that the virus was engineered. Despite scientific debunking and academic reassurance, a poll released last week found almost three out of 10 Americans believed the virus could have been made in a laboratory.

At a news conference on Wednesday, when he was not berating serious journalists as fakes, President Trump was asked a specific question about the laboratory leak theory by John Roberts of Fox News. He declined to answer. Trump’s uncharacteristic silence is in itself a metaphoric Petri dish where the germs of disinformation spread. He could have scotched the myth but didn’t.

Those polled who admitted they were Republican voters were twice as likely than Democrats to believe the theory that the Chinese leaked the virus.

Another related theory is that the novel coronavirus escaped accidentally. Fox News has repeatedly referred to the fact that the food market where the origins of the virus have been traced is only a few miles from a Chinese super laboratory that researches human infectious diseases. Despite the link being refuted, Fox continues with the innuendo.

“There is no evidence of escape from a lab,” Andrew Rambaut, a microbiologist at the University of Edinburgh, told The Washington Post. “The virus is just like a virus we would expect to see in wild bat populations. Similar viruses have jumped from non-human animals to animals in the past, so I see no reason to speculate about this any further.”

The intervention of informed scientists and virologists has not stemmed the tide of speculation and anti-Chinese propaganda circulates often, encouraged by rival global superpowers or by fans of dark science-fiction that preys on everyday fears.

Nor is there any credible evidence of a Chinese cover-up. Although provincial politicians in Wuhan and subsequently the national leadership in Beijing were slow to share information, intelligence gathering suggests that there is no real evidence that the Chinese government has misled the world.

If there was a cover-up it was to nullify criticism of poorly managed health responses in the early days of the outbreak, a criticism that can be levelled almost everywhere, not least at our own chaotic government in Westminster.

In the face of a frightening and unpredictable pandemic, ordinary people are understandably looking for someone to blame, or at very least a banister of opinion to hold on to.

If you are separated from your loved-ones, have a parent in a care home or are working in a font-line industry or isolated and working from home, these are frightening times.

But, like so many major catastrophes of this kind, a cascade of small errors or unconnected events is much more likely than one grand conspiracy.

We need sober and evidence-based facts rather than the speculation of daytime talk-shows.

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