Australia

Health experts say government MPs spreading coronavirus misinformation are a 'threat to public health'

Liberal member for Hughes Craig Kelly during Question Time in the House of Representatives. Source: AAP

Public health experts have warned misinformation spread by government MPs, and not called out by ministers, constitutes a threat to Australia’s successful fight against coronavirus and vaccine rollout.

The spreading of coronavirus misinformation by government MPs is a threat to public health and should be called out by senior officials, health experts say. 

Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Health Minister Greg Hunt on Tuesday refused to criticise Liberal MP Craig Kelly after he posted the results of a study that said forcing children to wear face masks was akin to "child abuse" on Facebook. 

The German study, which has not been peer-reviewed, examined the impact of mask-wearing for children and allegedly found many suffered headaches and impaired learning. 

Health experts have said that, if the spread of misinformation was left unchecked, it would undermine crucial trust in Australian public health officials and could hamper efforts to smother the virus. 

Mr Kelly and Liberal colleague George Christensen have previously called for a ban on anti-malaria medication hydroxychloroquine being used as a COVID-19 treatment to be overturned, despite widespread evidence that it is not effective. 

In October, the pair sent an open letter to Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeanette Young alleging that denying Queenslanders this treatment would amount to a breach of human rights.

Australia's chief medical officer, Dr Paul Kelly, on Wednesday declined to comment on Mr Kelly's actions, saying it "just gives prominence to views I don't agree with". 

"He needs to decide what is the appropriate thing for a member of Parliament to be commenting on," he told reporters. 

Dr Claire Hooker, an expert in public health communication at the University of Sydney, said the sharing of misinformation by elected MPs was “indefensible”.

“The Prime Minister and the front beach need to be actively criticising the spread of misinformation from their own party members on the backbench to be crystal clear that that action is highly irresponsible, constitutes a threat to public health and is an unacceptable misuse of that platform of that office," she told SBS News. 

"It requires swift party action to reign in members."

She said Australia’s relative success in combatting the coronavirus pandemic was due to high levels in public trust and compliance in public health messaging.

That success could potentially be threatened if misinformation remained unchallenged and public trust started to erode.

“There is an alarmingly high uptake of misinformation in relation to COVID-19 and that creates a threatening situation to the continued success of COVID-19 control,” she said.

“The ease with which people can access misinformation and the ease of which it is spread and the indefensible sharing and promotion of misinformation by elected government officials are all threats that need to be constantly taken seriously."

Australian Medical Association President Omar Khorshid on Tuesday called on the government to invest in an online advertising campaign to counter coronavirus misinformation and anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories.

"It's really important that our politicians, and in fact others in the community, especially at this time of a global pandemic listen to proper health advice, leave the science to the scientists, the medicine to the doctors," he told Channel Nine on Wednesday morning. 

"The interpretation of these studies that Craig Kelly’s talking about is actually quite complex, and you don't just believe everything that's published.

"And certainly, Australians shouldn't believe everything that's published on the internet about health, because there are all sorts of crackpot ideas out there."

Melbourne University Professor of Psychology Ron Borland said the spread of misinformation by government MPs was "disturbing". 

“Government members, you would expect to have responsible attitude towards essential information to the Australian population, so it is disturbing on one level that you have people using their role as parliamentarians to spread baseless beliefs,” he told SBS News.

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“I think it becomes more disturbing when people in power struggling to challenge those beliefs when asked about them because it gives those views some kind of validation.”

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has urged senior government figures to publicly call out Mr Kelly. 

Mr Turnbull told ABC Breakfast on Wednesday that political leaders needed to hold their party members responsible for what they say, particularly in matters of public health.

Overnight, Mr Kelly issued a statement on his Facebook page denying that he had shared misinformation, describing the posts as "the actual results of studies".

"Time will tell whether these studies are right or wrong or somewhere in between - time will tell - but they are NOT 'misinformation'," he wrote. 

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