The leader of the pro-Irexit Irish Freedom Party, Hermann Kelly, has been helping to lead a campaign in the European Parliament against rules requiring MEPs, staff and visitors to produce a Covid-19 vaccination certificate.
Kelly, who previously worked for Ukip leader Nigel Farage, was hired earlier this year as press officer for the anti-vaccination Romanian MEP Cristian Terhes of the Christian Democratic National Peasants' Party.
The Irish man is among those challenging the introduction of the EU Digital Covid certificate system on entry to European Parliament buildings, which requires proof of vaccination, a negative test or recovery from Covid-19. Free tests are available to staff and MEPs.
Since his appointment, Kelly has co-ordinated English-language communication for Terhes, as he has campaigned against Covid-19 certificates at a time when the Romanian government is struggling with a Covid-19 death rate 17 times that of Ireland’s over the past fortnight.
“If people want to take a vaccine and they want to take two, five or 10 per month, I'm very happy for them,” Kelly said. “I previously have taken every vaccine that was ever required of me... But this one I will not."
He spoke from his bedroom in Brussels, where he was in quarantine, having developed symptoms on November 20 and tested positive for Covid-19 the following day. He questioned whether the number of deaths from Covid-19 merited the use of vaccine certificates to contain infections, while playing down the seriousness of the illness as a "bad flu".
"I was the guy who rarely missed a day of school. I really do have a very good immune system," he said, pausing to cough occasionally. "I rarely get sick."
The infection forced Kelly to cancel a trip to Ireland in late November, when he had been due to hold events in Dungarvan, Lismore and Waterford, advertised by posters claiming that Irish death figures make no sense and likening Covid passes to "apartheid".
A recent campaign video on YouTube showed Kelly walking alongside MEP Terhes up to the entrance of the European Parliament, before the MEP refused to show a Covid-19 pass and confronted security staff.
“Who are you? Who elected you here? That’s the difference between me and you – you’re not elected and I’m elected,” Terhes told security staff, who replied that he was free to enter but that they would have to file a report.
“I’m not vaccinated and I’m not going to show any proof of testing,” Terhes insisted, referring to EU law and treaties. Kelly has been exempted from having to show the Covid pass as a plaintiff in the ongoing legal case, but must show a negative test result.
The European Parliament website lists Kelly as an “accredited assistant” for Terhes, a role that comes with an EU salary of at least €3,000 a month, but can be higher. “EU taxpayers have many, many different views,” he says.
Terhes's opposition against mandatory certificates in the parliament appeared to be supported by Dublin and Ireland South representatives Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, who posed with him for a photo near its entrance. Wallace and Daly did not respond to a request for comment.
"We are witnessing the transformation of the European Union from democracy to tyranny," Terhes told a conference in November, comparing vaccine mandates to Chinese human rights abuses, where "prisoners' body parts and organs are taken away from them.
“When you try to enter a restaurant, you have to show your green certificate … to a person who does not have any medical background, to a person who is a waitress … so they transform the whole society upside-down,” he said then.
Standing alongside Terhes, MEP for the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union Stasys Jakeliunas said "the pandemic basically is over", that PCR tests are "highly questionable" and that he didn't "believe" figures that there have been over 25,000 Covid-19 deaths in Belgium.
During a conference moderated by Kelly in October, MEP Christine Anderson of the right-wing Alternative for Germany made the unfounded claim that there was "no sound scientific evidence" Covid-19 vaccines' "benefits outweigh the disease itself".
“Whenever a political elite pushes an agenda this hard and resorts to extortion and manipulation to get their way, you can almost always be sure your benefit is not what they had at heart,” she said. “I will not be reduced to a mere guinea pig by being vaccinated with an experimental drug.”
Terhes said that while he had organised and led the press conference, he was not responsible for the statements of others, though he agreed with some of what was said. When asked for comment, Mr Jakeliūnas repeated his doubts about Covid-19 death and infection figures in an email and questioned the safety of vaccines.
Kelly says it is a great “achievement” that he and Terhes have been able to enter the European Parliament twice without using digital certificates, and expresses delight at the attention received on social media. “I’m talking about millions, millions per clip,” he says.
Terhes has a large Facebook audience, particularly among Romanian-language users, for videos about appearances at protests, monologues to camera about the Covid cert and his confrontational entry into the European Parliament.
Kelly steers clear of statements that are outright anti-vaccine declarations, but focuses on disappointment that widespread vaccination has not ended the transmission of the virus outright.
Since that has not happened, the scientific basis for the vaccine has been removed, he says, although according to the World Health Organisation, vaccines reduce transmission of the Covid-19 Delta variant by 40 per cent.
"Remember, during the referendum in Ireland, 'My body, my choice'? Well, he's basically saying that" - Kelly on Terhes
The media’s Covid-19 coverage is an example of “monomania” and disproportionate to the number of deaths caused, he says. “[The vaccine] does reduce the symptoms, it reduces your chance of serious sickness and death. That is true,” he says. “My problem is, I won’t be dictated by the state what I put inside my body.”
Kelly says his boss aims to avoid commenting on whether vaccines work or not.
“His attitude is that he’s not going to get bogged down talking about the efficacy or non-efficacy of vaccines. He’s talking about their mandatory nature, an attack on people’s bodily integrity and right to choose. Remember, during the referendum in Ireland, ‘My body, my choice’? Well, he’s basically saying that.”
Some fellow MEPs see the Terhes-led campaign as an attempt to stoke fears among vaccine-hesitant people.
Petar Vitanov, a Bulgarian Socialist Party MEP who was friendly with Terhes and in the same political group before the Romanian left it to switch to the right-wing last year, is scathing about the campaign.
"There are people who trust them, and those who trust them do not get vaccinated, and they die. They simply f***ing die. Okay?"
“I know them personally. I do not accept their position, and this is the probably the most gentle thing that I would say about them,” Vitanov says of the MEPs.
“I think that this is wrong, and I think that this is fooling the people,” he adds. “There are people who trust them, and those who trust them do not get vaccinated, and they die. They simply f***ing die. Okay?”
Dr Peter Liese, a German physician and MEP with the centre-right Christian Democratic Union, says the large numbers of unvaccinated people in ICUs is forcing the postponement of cancer treatments and surgery.
“They even rejected to have a test. I think this is really outrageous,” says Dr Liese. “They are playing political games. They know that part of the population is hesitant, and they try to benefit from this.”