COVID truthers in the UK, led by hardline “sovereign citizens,” are trying to set up separatist rural collectives to break away from what they see as the corrupting influence of mainstream society and the government.
The initiatives have emerged from the UK’s volatile COVID conspiracist scene, which mobilised during the pandemic to oppose lockdowns and coronavirus vaccinations, and has become increasingly radicalised.
Experts say the separatist projects are a concerning but predictable evolution of a movement whose paranoid, conspiracist ideology makes it deeply suspicious of the government and other institutions, and has driven a wedge between many COVID truthers and their families and friends.
Many within these networks are so-called sovereign citizens – followers of a fringe anti-government ideology that uses pseudo-legal jargon to peddle the delusional idea that its followers are sovereign, can essentially declare themselves exempt from laws they don’t like, and even have the power to “arrest” others under so-called common law.
A vocal cheerleader of the separatist approach is a hardline influencer in COVID truther networks known only as “Matt,” who regularly posts videos on Telegram channels associated with the scene. In January, he led a group of sovereign citizens in storming a pharmacy in Normanton, a town in West Yorkshire in northern England, in a bid to forcibly halt COVID vaccinations there, threatening workers with false claims that he had the legal right to use force.
In another video posted online earlier this year, he outlined his vision for creating a “self-sustaining” village that would be “free from… outside influences.”
“We are going to put a village there. A working, thriving, living, loving community. And then we’re going to replicate it as many times as we can… Because we are never, ever, ever gonna let them evil, corrupt fucking bastards win,” he said, in an apparent reference to the institutions and “elites” who the movement sees as its enemies.
“Can you imagine if we all lived together? If we lived on the same patch, we just worked to survive, to eat, built each other’s homes,” he said. “There’s kids free, teaching them how to be decent people, to look after each other, look out for one another and love each other… This is the world that we create. There’s no going back for us.”
Matt is a leader of a group which has been attempting to collectively purchase a plot of land to establish a New Age-ish rural community under the name “Elm Springs.” The group, which describes itself on its website as “a collective of awakened entrepreneurs” working to build a self-sustaining community governed by “natural laws,” communicates on a dedicated Telegram group with more than 200 members, and has held a number of IRL meetings to advance the project.
Another of the group’s leaders is Elizabeth Koczorowska, a student of natural medicine who is the self-described “protector” of the Elm Springs De Jure Eco-Holistic Society. She told VICE World News that the group had grand ambitions.
“The idea of a society is to, in a later stage, become a city,” she said in a phone interview. “Meaning, we will not be only on the farm. Hopefully we'll buy all the other farms around. But, yeah, we go step by step.”
Experts say the separatist drive within the UK COVID truther scene – also seen in efforts to pull their children out of public schools and set up unregistered “schools” in their place – was not unsurprising.
Ciaran O’Connor, a senior analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said the desire to form breakaway communities was common among sovereign citizen-inspired groups, especially in the US and Canada.
Nick Backovic, a senior analyst at Logically, an organisation that combats online misinformation, said the separatist impulse was a logical consequence of the “conspiratorial mindset.”
“If you reach the point where you don’t trust your government, you don’t trust scientists, you don’t trust teachers, and you don’t even trust your friends and family – who do you turn to in your offline life?” he told VICE World News. “Maybe to the communities you met online who share this conspiratorial mindset.”
The move to withdraw from society, and turn in towards communities where their delusional beliefs were only reinforced, was a concerning development.
“The combination of these conspiratorial beliefs, and the fact you think the law does not apply to you, is a recipe for disaster,” he said.
During a phone interview, Koczorowska, the co-leader of Elm Springs, was initially bullish about the project to VICE World News. She claimed that her group was poised to imminently buy a parcel of farmland, either in northwest or southern England, and that about 100 people would move there once the sale went through, building their own homes and working together in accordance with principles of “respect, transparency, unity, love and service to others.”
“It's all a matter of volunteer work for each other, like a family,” she said.
However, the day after the interview, Koczorowska emailed to say that there had been a sudden change in plan. She was putting Elm Springs “on standby for now,” she said, and it would likely take another two or three years to develop the project.
“Everything is on standby,” she wrote. “I do not want to be confused with protesters or resistance movements, because I have not[h]ing to do with them.”
During the interview, Koczorowska said that a key motivating factor behind the project was disenchantment with the government for “forcing things on the public” during the pandemic.
“That really frightened everybody to hell,” she said.
“If I cannot trust the government, if I cannot be free to have my own choices, then what is the government about? It's not to help me.”
But she insisted that her group were not anti-government radicals. Asked about the militant track record of her associate Matt, she said she had urged him to tone down his approach.
“I think he's calmed down,” she said.
“We’re not creating this so the government cannot touch us. We are creating it so the government respects us,” she said.
A separatist, non-residential “community hub” in the UK COVID truther scene has made much more tangible progress, enabling its supporters, according to one of the project’s leaders, to successfully “free… ourselves from negative outside influences.”
Situated on a large rural plot of land in Sussex, southeast England, HOPE was initially launched as a venue that COVID truther parents who had pulled their children out of mainstream education could hire for lessons for their homeschooled kids.
But it has since evolved into something broader, an “actual, functioning, freedom-embracing community hub” for the truther movement, Matt Single, one of the key players behind HOPE, told VICE World News in an email. While there are no plans to turn the site into a residential community, the site plays a major role in sustaining the cultural and social life of the so-called “freedom” movement, as the COVID truther scene calls itself, hosting concerts, seminars and other community-building and social events; in July, HOPE hosted the 3-day “Freedom Music Festival,” with a line-up of acts affiliated with the COVID conspiracist scene.
Single has publicly described the HOPE community as his “family,” replacing the actual family connections he had lost due to his conspiratorial beliefs. On a podcast earlier this year, he said that the pandemic had “done me a massive favour: it’s taken away the people that weren’t really my family, but it’s given me my real family.”
HOPE has become a cause celebre for the scene, with influencers within the movement organising fundraising efforts, including charity fight nights and treks, and attending volunteer drives where supporters donate their time and labour to develop the site’s infrastructure. Supporters include figures affiliated with Alpha Team Assemble, a hardline sovereign citizen group which has held combat training sessions for COVID truthers and been involved in hounding a drag queen giving performances at children’s libraries.
“We are a magnet to all people that have recognised the cold truth that we are ruled by deeply corrupt career politicians, that seek our subservience and will use fear and division to achieve it,” Single said in an email.
Drawing on common conspiracy theorist themes, Single cited events and issues such as COVID lockdowns, the war in Ukraine, monkey pox, and global terrorism as phenomenon that were “designed to create division and fear within our communities, so [that people] turn against one another and are easily controlled.”
“We have completely withdrawn from this mindless fear and division, and are cutting our own path in this world, led by our community,” he said. “We have freed ourselves from negative outside influences.”
Aside from their conspiracist ideology, critics of HOPE have pointed to Single and his wife Sadie’s past affiliations in far-right politics, and their participation in violent anti-lockdown protests, to argue they shouldn’t be tutoring children.
The couple were previously members of the British National PArty, with Sadie even serving as a borough councillor for the far-right party, until Matt was convicted in 2009 for leaking names and personal data of thousands of party members amid a bitter leadership feud. Last year, Sadie was filmed pulling a police officer’s ponytail amid violent scuffles at a “resistance” protest in London.
Single has previously told VICE World News that he and his wife had long since renounced far-right politics, and attempted to defend his Sadie’s actions at the protest by claiming they had faced “great provocation from the police.”
“Fighting for freedom and truth forms the very core of our ethos at HOPE Sussex,” he said.
He told VICE World News in an email that while HOPE intended to continue to grow and “attract greater numbers of freedom loving people into our fold,” there were no current plans to build an actual village on site, which remained largely non-residential.
“However, the sky is the limit once enough people join together and take a dream and then create from it an actual reality,” he said.