Dr Steve James is a successful 48-year-old hospital consultant who lives in a £1.6 million home in London’s East Dulwich with his partner Johanne, a Danish pastry chef turned yoga instructor.
Dr James works as an anaesthetist at the nearby King’s College Hospital, supplementing his NHS income via private work at the London Bridge Hospital, where he charges £230 for a half-hour consultation, and £450 for 90 minutes of his expert attention.
At weekends, he and Johanne enjoy cooking, cycling and attending a ‘Meditation Centre’ near the River Thames run by a Buddhist organisation where he is a member of its board of trustees.
Last summer, they holidayed on a Danish island where Johanne runs spiritual wellness retreats via a company named Earth Women in which clients learn about ‘the deep inherent wisdom and power that we women are born with but rarely told about’.
Their household income is, further supplemented via Earth Women’s online shop, which Dr James has promoted on social media.
It sells a host of ambitious-sounding healthcare products, including a tea that purports to ‘support and calm the nervous system’, essential oils that ‘calm and regulate the hormones during menopause’ and £40 vaginal steaming kits that claim to ‘boost fertility’, ‘detox the womb’, and release stored emotions’.
Pro choice: Dr Steve James airs his views on vaccination to Sajid Javid at King’s College Hospital
In other words, the Cambridge-educated medic appears to enjoy a prosperous, but largely unremarkable, existence, save for the odd flirtation with New Age mysticism of the sort made fashionable (and highly profitable) by the Gwyneth Paltrows of this world.
Or at least, he did.
For this week, Dr Steve James was propelled to the front line of the most toxic — and perhaps least ‘Zen’ — controversy of our age.
He became an overnight hero of the global anti-vaxx movement after making critical remarks about vaccination to Health Secretary Sajid Javid during a tour of King’s College Hospital.
In a filmed exchange, Dr James told the politician that he was ‘not happy’ with new rules due to take effect in April that will require all patient-facing staff in the NHS to become fully vaccinated.
‘I’ve had Covid at some point. I’ve got antibodies. I’ve been working on Covid ICU since the beginning,’ he told Mr Javid.
‘I have not had a vaccination, I do not want to have a vaccination. The vaccine is reducing transmission only for about eight weeks with Delta. With Omicron it’s probably less.
New Age pursuits: Dr James and his partner Johanne
‘And for that I would be dismissed if I don’t have a vaccine? The science isn’t strong enough.’
The remarks contained a number of factual errors.
But that didn’t stop them going viral, clocking millions of views on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and delighting conspiracy-minded opponents of vaccination who have hitherto struggled to find qualified doctors who voice views they approve of.
‘Well done! If only more medical staff honoured their path instead of taking Pharma’s 30 pieces of silver and knowingly carrying out protocols that resulted in patients suffering and dying,’ read a typical response aired on the encrypted messaging app Telegram.
‘This guy is a hero for standing up to tyranny and [for] humanity in the fight of good versus evil,’ read another.
Since then, Dr James has enjoyed sudden celebrity. He was interviewed by BBC Radio Four and appeared on Good Morning Britain, and was commissioned to write for the Spectator magazine. On Instagram, where he began to post videos of himself delivering monologues to camera — sometimes in front of the Houses of Parliament — he’s quickly gained 40,000 followers who have posted thousands of messages praising him for, as one put it, ‘waking people up to this madness’.
He’s also received fierce criticism, particularly from fellow doctors.
‘A deluded, irresponsible and dangerous intervention,’ was how Dr Rich Breeze, an anaesthetist at University Hospital Lewisham in South London, described it.
‘Obviously when you have over a million people working in the NHS, you will invariably have some people who have crank views, but equally patients have to be able to trust their doctors to interpret data,’ added Dr David Nicholl, a consultant neurologist. Meenal Viz, a doctor based in the Midlands, tweeted: ‘Legitimate discussion. Legitimate setting. Legitimate doctor. Legitimate outfits. British accent. Regurgitates anti-vax sentiments. His opinion holds weight. It will be recycled and replayed for years, mostly out of context.’
A BBC News ‘fact-checking’ article meanwhile identified a number of errors in Dr James’s remarks to Mr Javid, including that his claim about vaccines only reducing transmission of the Delta variant for eight weeks was false.The study he was referencing found that the AstraZeneca jab was effective for 12 weeks, while other vaccines were effective against transmission of the variant for far longer.
Moreover, the BBC article read: ‘Research looking at an infected person’s chance of passing the virus on doesn’t tell the whole story — the vaccines can also reduce people’s risk to others by stopping them catching the virus in the first place.’
In response, Dr James has somewhat sheepishly accepted that he was mistaken to make the eight-week claim. He has further denied being an ‘anti-vaxxer’, arguing that he is merely opposed to a policy that ‘mandates medical interventions’.
During an interview with the website UnHerd, which has clocked up 170,000 views, he stressed that vaccines have made a ‘big difference’ to the pandemic and saved many lives. However, he added that he’s ‘happy to take the risk of having Covid’ on the grounds that his ‘risk profile is really pretty low’.
Dr James also said that forcing medical professionals such as himself to get vaccinated to do their job was deeply illiberal: ‘Let’s please respect the ability of every adult in the country to think for themselves.’
The problem, as he perhaps should have known, is that in making these arguments, he has provided grist to the mill of extremists with very questionable pedigrees indeed.
For example, in the UnHerd interview, Dr James name-checked what he described as ‘a group formed called NHS100k based on that idea that there’s 100,000 [unvaccinated NHS staff] out there at present. Some of those people are going to have a vaccine under coercion, and that’s not a good thing.”
NHS100k is, in fact, an anti-vaxx lobby group organising protest marches in Sheffield and Halifax this weekend.
On the surface, it’s largely anodyne, for example encouraging supporters to wear purple ribbons to demonstrate opposition to vaccine mandates.
But behind the scenes, things are different. Roughly 2,500 of its members communicate via the app Telegram, an encrypted system that also happens to be popular with far-Right groups in the U.S. A host of messages on the forum advance false and at times dangerous conspiracy theories.
One posits that the Government is building concentration camps to house unvaccinated citizens.
This week, Dr Steve James was propelled to the front line of the most toxic — and perhaps least ‘Zen’ — controversy of our age
‘I hear there are at least six “buildings” like this being built in the UK. One of them is Wellingborough prison (u can Google it and see for urselves).
‘For years prisons in the UK have been known to be overcrowded . . . and all of a sudden, during pandemic times, the Government decides to build mega prisons . . . something ain’t right.’
Others claim drug companies are secretly implanting microchips in swathes of the population.
‘Lately, I’ve been seeing articles about people having the chip instead of a Vax passport so that conspiracy theory that I didn’t believe has turned out to be true!’ reads one.
Elsewhere, members, who for some reason call each other ‘clansmen’, are urged to report NHS trusts to the police for ‘mRNA vaccine related corporate crimes and threats to public health’. A contributor adds: ‘They are trying to kill us with their bioweapons.’
On the day in December when the NHS vaccine mandate passed through Parliament, another contributor to the NHS100k Telegram forum declared: ‘My MP voted for it, the rat. We need to remember these Judases . . . May they all burn in eternal hell.’
While Dr James does of course not endorse these and other extremist statements, he finds himself at the forefront of a movement that allows them to germinate.
Not that criticism seems to bother him. ‘Not all my colleagues are behind me, I know that, but for those who have reached out in different ways to support, thank you very much,’ he said this week.
‘I’ve had colleagues come up and ask for a selfie. A lot of juniors have expressed support. The families that I’ve spoken to have said: “Aren’t you the doctor on the telly, yeah?” and I’ve said yes and they’ve expressed support.’
Intriguingly, this isn’t the first time he’s found himself involved in a public controversy.
Away from the medical realm, Dr James is also a senior figure in Diamond Way Buddhism, a branch of the faith founded by a charismatic Dane called Ole Nydahl.
Mr Nydahl has for many years been accused of making Islamopobic remarks in interviews that (much like the anti-vaxx movement) have been weaponised by the hard-Right.
In 2013, he said: ‘Judaism and Christianity are fine. Islam I warn against. I know the Koran. I know the life story of Mohammed. And I think we cannot use that in our society today.’
Around the same time, Nydahl declared: ‘Almost all the destruction suffered by Buddhist culture has happened through Islam.’
And in an interview in 2017, he said: ‘My hope for the world is for less overpopulation: quality, not quantity. Educated people. And I want Islam to go very far away. I don’t like that religion.
As a result of such remarks, when, in 2012, Diamond Way opened the Meditation Centre, more than 40 protesters from the Lambeth Muslim Forum and the Lambeth Interfaith Network protested outside Lambeth Town Hall, claiming that its leader ‘preaches hate’.
Dr James, who remains a trustee of the Centre, was at the time its PR spokesman.
He was quoted in the local newspaper defending Nydahl’s remarks, by saying: ‘The occasional comments he has made about radical Islam have been grouped together and circulated in order to cause offence.’
Diamond Way participated in a 2003 University of Wisconsin-Madison research project which concluded that regular meditation and reading Nydahl’s books made a group of subjects ‘develop significantly more antibodies against infection from a normal influenza vaccine than those in a group who did not meditate’.
Today, Dr James’s culture war of choice revolves around a different article of faith: the Government’s decision to force frontline NHS staff to vaccinate.
Those who do not comply, currently thought to represent 7.8 per cent of the NHS’s 1.43 million employees, face either being redeployed to backroom roles or losing their jobs.
Though popular with patients and the public, the new rule is opposed by the estimated 100,000 unvaccinated NHS staff it will affect, and also by trade unions and the Royal Colleges of Nursing and Midwifery, who argue that it risks exacerbating a staffing crisis.
An impact assessment published by the Department of Health — where debate on the issue in the coming weeks is expected to become ‘an absolute nightmare’ — predicts 73,000 NHS staffers might lose their jobs.
Dr James believes tens of thousands of colleagues will leave healthcare.
Similar warnings were made by both the care home industry and trade unions such as Unison last November, when Mr Javid introduced a law forcing staff in care homes to get jabbed.
They claimed that up to 60,000 employees would quit rather than take a vaccine.
Labour Health minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan (who was ordered, along with all Labour colleagues, to vote against the new law) said last year: ‘To force carers to choose between losing their jobs or taking a vaccine they’re afraid of is inhumane.’
In fact, the number of unjabbed care home staff who left the industry was just 3,500, or roughly 0.7 per cent of the 460,000 staff employed in care homes.
The experience has been similar everywhere else in the world that vaccine mandates have been imposed.
For example, when New York ordered that police officers needed to have a jab, their trade unions claimed 10,000 of the city’s 35,000 coppers would quit. In fact, just 34 did.
In France, a third of the country’s 2.7 million health workers were unvaccinated when the government introduced a mandate in the summer. When the law came into force, three months later, just 3,000 were fired.
Its unclear why trade unions and the Royal Colleges expect a different result in the UK.
Interestingly, in one of its typically screeching U-turns of recent times, Labour now supports applying the policy to the NHS.
As for Dr James, he has until early February to roll up his sleeve for a first dose. But he insists he will refuse.
His preferred option, he says, would be to move to Wales or Scotland, where trade unions tend to call the shots and the devolved governments have not so far introduced vaccine mandates.
Alternatively, he could live off his earnings from private practice, which include running a ‘Breathlessness Clinic’ (in which his vagina-steaming partner Johanne is a co-director) and an £850 five-day ‘sleep school’ for people with insomnia.
One thing he’s unlikely to regain very soon is the respect of most of his colleagues.
‘The consultants’ contract says you are free to express views, so I, of course, support his right to do so,’ was how Dr Peter English, retired Consultant in Communicable Disease Control, and past Chair of the BMA Public Health Medicine Committee, put it this week. ‘However, I also support everyone else’s right to tell this man what a complete and utter fool he is being.’