DCMS rapid response unit to tackle coronavirus fake news

Unit's involvement announced as Boris Johnson chairs COBRA meeting to plan next steps

Digital secretary Oliver Dowden said the unit would tackle 'interference' on social media. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has convened a cross-government unit to rebuff fake news about Covid-19, as the government prepares to set out the next steps they will take to tackle the spread of the virus.

The unit will identify and respond to disinformation – false or manipulated information that has been deliberately created and spread – about the novel coronavirus strain, DCMS said.

The unit will aim to curb narratives spread by hostile states, among other sources. DCMS said its focus would be on information spread to “[cause] harm for political, personal or financial gain”


Digital secretary Oliver Dowden said that “defending the country from misinformation and digital interference is a top priority” for the government.

“As part of our ongoing work to tackle these threats we have brought together expert teams to make sure we can respond effectively should these threats be identified in relation to the spread of Covid-19,” he said.

The department said the unit would have “regular and robust engagement” with social media companies to monitor interference and limit the spread of disinformation, and it will work with communications experts to respond where necessary.

The unit has been used in the past to counter disinformation, but is not a permanent fixture in DCMS. It is separate from the Rapid Response Unit set up in the Cabinet Office to tackle fake news nearly two years ago. The RRU was first set up as a six-month pilot scheme in April 2018, and has since tackled claims that the government had passed a vote claiming that animals could not feel pain, and about deaths resulting from an outbreak of listeria.

The announcement of the anti-disinformation unit came as the government ramped up its efforts to deal with the accelerating spread of Covid-19 in the UK. At last count, 280 cases had been confirmed in the country.

Prime minister Boris Johnson will chair a COBRA meeting of senior ministers this morning to determine which steps to take next. He is expected to announce that the government is moving from the first phase of its “action plan” to tackle the virus to the second.

The “delay” phase could see schools closed, major sporting events called off and more people asked to work form home in a bid to ensure cases do not peak before the summer months.

The formal move to the “delay” stage will be given the go-ahead by the government’s chief medical adviser, Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance.

Johnson is expected to tell ministers at the meeting that the government is "well prepared and will continue to make decisions to protect the public based on the latest scientific advice.

"Tackling coronavirus will required a national and international effort. I am confident the British people are ready to play their part in that."

The government announces extra measures yesterday to slow the spread of the virus yesterday. The Department of Health and Social Care said emergency legislation would be put in place to allow for more video hearings in courts, and to protect the jobs of workers who take time off to volunteer for the NHS.

Some three million people already volunteer in health settings, but the action plan set out last week said more would be needed if large numbers of NHS staff fall ill.

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