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Debunked: No, a Freedom of Information request to the HSE did not prove that Covid-19 does not exist

The claim originated in a series of posts by Anti-Corruption Ireland last week.

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A NUMBER OF Facebook posts which have circulated in the past week inaccurately suggest that Irish health officials have admitted that Covid-19 does not exist.

The claim originated in a series of posts by Anti-Corruption Ireland on 23 December, with an accompanying post claiming that Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan “has finally admitted that the Covid-19 virus has not been proven to exist”.

In a 10-minute video filmed outside the Department of Health, Gemma O’Doherty says she asked if the department or the HSE “could find proof that the virus SARS-CoV-2/Covid-19 actually exists” via the Freedom of Information Act.

She also holds up the response sent to her by the department, suggesting that it is “proof of the answer that we knew that they would have to give… that is, that the virus Covid-19 does not exist”.

GmaaFOI Source: Facebook

Earlier that day, Anti-Corruption Ireland posted an image of part of the HSE’s response to the Freedom of Information (FOI) request on its Facebook page.

The image does not contain the precise wording of Anti-Corruption Ireland’s FOI request, but does show part of the HSE’s response, including the reason why the request was refused:

Following my [HSE decision maker] consultation with my colleagues, both from the scientific and medical areas of HPSC, [I] can confirm that we would hold no records in relation to your request.
These are the reasonable steps I have to taken to ascertain the whereabouts or existence of such records and unfortunately I must inform you that having undertaken these searches, we were unable to locate the records in question.

The official reason for refusal under Section 15 (1) of the Freedom of Information Act later in the HSE’s response is also highlighted. It reads:

A head to whom an FOI request is made may refuse to grant the request where – (a) the record concerned does not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain its whereabouts have been taken.

The accompanying post by Anti-Corruption Ireland states that the group asked the HSE “to provide proof that the Covid19 virus exists” adding that “they have finally replied and have admitted that they are unable to produce any record that it does”.

132329011_821951888366974_7506972179078864321_n Source: Facebook

However, this is an incorrect interpretation of an FOI response and the specific refusal under Section 15 (1) of the Freedom of Information Act.

Despite this, several other Facebook users have re-shared the FOI request and claimed that it is an admission by the HSE that Covid-19 does not exist.

How the Freedom of Information Act works

The Freedom of Information Act 2014 gives anyone a right to access records held by a wide range of public bodies, including government departments and the HSE.

Requests can cover everything from the cost of a seldom-used Oireachtas printer or complaints sent by members of the public to Met Éireann.

A person can make a request for any record held by public bodies covered by FOI legislation – provided the records actually exist.

The FOI Act does not require bodies covered by the legislation to create records if none exist, apart from specific requirements in certain circumstances (such as extracting information held on electronic devices).

So for example, a person cannot request “how many times a minister ordered takeaway” under FOI, but could ask for copies of takeaway receipts which were later claimed as an expense.

But if a requester asked for “copies of receipts of takeaways ordered by departmental staff and paid for by the department”, but the department never paid for any takeaways, the records would be deemed not to exist because the department could never have held them.

Requests must also be specific: a person cannot, for example, request “what the Minister for Health believed about Covid-19 on 12 March”, but could request copies of emails between the Minister for Health and the Taoiseach mentioning Covid-19 on that date.

Records refused under Section 15 (1)

There are a number of exemptions that prevent FOI requests being granted. Requests for records that don’t exist and requests that are too vague are two of those exemptions.

If a public body says it is refusing an FOI request under Section 15 (1) of the Freedom of Information Act, it means the public body has deemed that the record does not exist.

The person responsible for FOI requests is usually not the person with specific knowledge of records held by a public body, so they generally ask a number of people working for the body if they know where the records relevant to the request can be found.

When a request is refused under Section 15 (1), they explain that they have done this.

In relation to Anti-Corruption Ireland’s FOI request, the person responsible asked people working in the scientific and medical areas of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre for relevant records, but no records of that nature were found to exist.

Occasionally, a refusal like this also happens because the requester was too vague about their request.

At the time of publication, it is difficult to gauge what type of records were searched for, as Anti-Corruption Ireland did not include the wording of their request in their Facebook post (the HSE will publish this on its website, as bodies do with all FOIs, at a later date).

However, Gemma O’Doherty claims to have asked for ”proof that the virus SARS-CoV-2/Covid-19 actually exists”.

The HSE would likely not hold such distinct records because it is a scientific fact that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) exists.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the health service directly addressed the claim that Covid-19 does not exist, explaining that it is a disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

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“SARS-CoV-2 was first described in early 2020 and declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020,” a HSE spokeswoman said.

“The devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been seem and felt by everyone in Ireland and across the globe since that time, and in Ireland, the virus has been responsible for over 86,894 cases of the disease, and for the deaths of 2,205 people.

“Covid-19 can affect your lungs and airways, and sometimes other parts of your body. Covid-19 is highly infectious… Covid-19 can cause serious illness, hospitalisation and even death.”

The HSE explained that the response issued under Section 15 (1) of the Freedom of Information Act was a standard response to an FOI request “when the relevant HSE office has searched, but does not have any records that match what was requested”.

Anti-Corruption Ireland’s FOI request was refused because the HSE did not need to prove the existence of a virus that had already been found to be circulating, and therefore did not create any relevant records. 

In the same way, the Department of Agriculture would almost certainly refuse a request that sought records proving the existence of cows, because it has probably never created any records about the proof that cows exist.

It is a false conclusion and a misinterpretation of the Act to suggest that by refusing an FOI request for records proving the existence of SARS-CoV-2, the HSE admitted that the virus does not exist.

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There is a lot of false news and scaremongering being spread in Ireland at the moment about coronavirus. Here are some practical ways for you to assess whether the messages that you’re seeing – especially on WhatsApp – are true or not. 

STOP, THINK AND CHECK 

Look at where it’s coming from. Is it someone you know? Do they have a source for the information (e.g. the HSE website) or are they just saying that the information comes from someone they know? A lot of the false news being spread right now is from people claiming that messages from ‘a friend’ of theirs. Have a look yourself – do a quick Google search and see if the information is being reported elsewhere. 

Secondly, get the whole story, not just a headline. A lot of these messages have got vague information (“all the doctors at this hospital are panicking”) and don’t mention specific details. This is often – but not always a sign – that it may not be accurate. 

Finally, see how you feel after reading it. A lot of these false messages are designed to make people feel panicked. They’re deliberately manipulating your feelings to make you more likely to share it. If you feel panicked after reading something, check it out and see if it really is true.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

Have you gotten a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter about coronavirus that you’re not sure about and want us to check it out? Message or mail us and we’ll look into debunking it. WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 or Email: answers@thejournal.ie

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