Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch has described being confronted in the street and accused of being part of a Covid-19 conspiracy to cull parts of the population, as she called on the Government to do more about the spread of misinformation.

Giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Thursday, the former equalities minister also questioned the use of category BAME (black and minority ethnic) in analysis of the disproportionate impact of the virus.

Discussing Government efforts to improve vaccine uptake during the pandemic, she said some people believed the publicity campaigns were a part of a sinister “secret conspiracy”.

Ms Badenoch said: “There was a fear that a lot of the communications about disproportionate impact was actually a secret conspiracy to scare ethnic minorities into taking vaccines which was a way of the Government culling the population.

Covid Memorial Wall – London
Kemi Badenoch was equalities minister during the pandemic (Matt Crossick/PA)

“So even the things that we were doing in order to identify risk were being manipulated into conspiracy theories to deter people from doing what would help them mitigate that risk, and that was something I was particularly concerned about.”

When asked by Dermot Keating, counsel to the inquiry, about the most important lessons learned from the pandemic, Ms Badenoch said the Government is yet to “get a handle” on dealing with misinformation.

She added: “I say this, even as a constituency MP, the number of people who come up to me in the street and tell me that I am part of a grand conspiracy to infect them, and ‘so-and-so died’ because of the material that we were putting out.

“I don’t think Government has got a handle on dealing with misinformation. I don’t think that we have adapted to this age of social media where information travels at lightning speed across the world.

“I don’t know how we solve it, but in terms of gaps, I think there is a lesson in the pandemic that this is an area that needs some addressing.”

Ms Badenoch said she she had heard there is work going on in departments on the issue, but added: “I don’t see it”.

She also voiced her opposition to the use of the BAME category in a Public Health England (PHE) analysis of disparities in the impact of Covid across the population, which was published in June 2020.

Explaining her position, she said the term “masked what was actually happening within different ethnicities by lumping people who are black with people who are Asian”.

Ms Badenoch added the “umbrella term” could make it harder to look at the “underlying factors” causing disproportionate impact of the virus, saying it “completely obscures different bits of information” and was “not particularly helpful”.

She also said additional funding would not have stopped ethnic minority groups being disproportionately affected by Covid-19.

Ms Badenoch added: “What the evidence has shown is that being an ethnic minority was not the cause of being disproportionately impacted. It correlated with what the causes were – the co-morbidities.

“So you have to tackle the actual cause, not the thing that comes in common with it.

Levelling up
Kemi Badenoch criticised some Whitehall departments for not doing enough on inequality (Lauren Hurley/PA)

“There was no perfect way of finding a particular group to give extra cash to. And extra cash, in and of itself, would not have solved the problem which you were trying to resolve of trying to make sure people were protected and away from the virus.”

She also criticised some unnamed Government departments for failing to do enough to assess the impact of their work on inequalities in a review of performance on the issue.

Discussing her findings, Ms Badenoch said: “This was part of what we were we were looking to identify – where there were gaps; where some departments weren’t doing as well as they could or should.”

When questioned on why her recommendations were broad observations rather than specific demands, she said: “The way we write these documents might seem odd, but there is a lot of reading between the lines – we don’t want to demoralise or over-criticise the people that we’re working with – but effectively what this paragraph is saying is that some people haven’t yet done what they should be doing.”

In her written statement to the inquiry published on Thursday, Ms Badenoch alluded to pandemic-era gatherings in Downing Street, remarking that the focus on these events was “unhelpful” and “fuelled scepticism”.

“There was clear annoyance, anger and upset over perceived breaches of rules and standard by those in authority,” she said.

“Clearly the focus on this at the time fuelled scepticism and was unhelpful overall in terms of the compliance narrative, however I do not think that it impacted people’s wellbeing or their decision to comply with the rules generally.”