Vaccine hesitancy in the UK

“This pattern of disinformation for political (or commercial) gain is an ongoing challenge for us as Greens, as we try to raise the bar on ethics in politics.” The Party’s spokesperson on health, social care and public health Peter Cranie analyses the uptake and refusal of the Covid-19 vaccine in the UK.

Covid-19 vaccine
Peter Cranie

Back in the days before most people had heard the term coronavirus, SAGE defined vaccine hesitancy as:

“…to delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccination despite availability of vaccination services. Vaccine hesitancy is complex and context specific, varying across time, place and vaccines. It is influenced by factors such as complacency, convenience and confidence.” SAGE, 2015

The good news is that vaccine hesitancy in the UK is falling. The latest ONS survey (covering 23 June to 18 July) show hesitancy in falling in younger age groups:

  • Aged 16-17 down from 14 per cent to 11 per cent
  • Aged 18-21 down from 9 per cent to 5 per cent
  • Aged 22-25 down marginally from 10 per cent to 9 per cent

Overall 96 per cent reported positive sentiment towards coronavirus vaccines, while 4 per cent reported hesitancy, but in the most deprived areas of the UK, hesitancy averaged 8 per cent, while in the most affluent areas it averaged just 2 per cent.

There has been a noticeably persistent anti-vaxxer brigade flying in the face of science. As Greens, we are used to seeing this in another arena, with climate emergency denial in the face of the overwhelming scientific consensus. We also have to recognise that some people don’t accept evolution, believe that the moon landings were faked and are probably looking to glimpse Elvis around the corner.

The fact that anti-vaxxers have been so visible and heavily over-promoted by those who promote a libertarian philosophy (who incidentally now dominate the Conservative Party) mirrors the pattern we saw for decades with the ‘false balance’ between climate scientists and climate ‘sceptics’.

Where we have work to do is evident. The socio-economic difference in attitude has been pointed out above, but we must also consider the less positive findings from a different source, Public Health England (reported in The Lancet). They offer a stark contrast to the ONS findings, recording vaccine hesitancy levels in BAME communities as follows:

  • 71.8 per cent for Black or Black British respondents
  • 42.3 per cent for Pakistani or Bangledeshi respondents
  • (with a much lower) 15.2 per cent for White British or Irish respondents

Reasons for low uptake in minority groups are identified in the Government’s own research as perception of risk, low confidence in the vaccine, distrust, access barriers, inconvenience, socio-demographic context and lack of endorsement. Recommendations to overcome this include multilingual communications, vaccine availability, endorsements from trusted sources and understanding different religious and cultural concerns.

The Green Party has to avoid a situation where we stigmatise those who might feel ethically they have no choice but to avoid the vaccine and engage in respectful conversations whether that is for perceived religious or dietary reasons. The Vegan Society recognises that may be an issue for committed vegans, but in their official response note that: “The definition of veganism recognises that it is not always possible or practicable for vegans to avoid participating in animal use, which is particularly relevant to medical situations…”

A key finding of the research has been that certain groups are being misled about the vaccines (another parallel with climate reporting, as anyone familiar with the Watts up with that blog will attest), particularly on social media. Facebook has just banned a network of accounts, reportedly based in Russia, for an attempt to smear the Pfizer vaccine. This was the second attempt to attack ‘Western’ vaccines with disinformation, with a previous “Planet of the Apes” smear on the AstraZeneca vaccine.

This pattern of disinformation for political (or commercial) gain is an ongoing challenge for us as Greens, as we try to raise the bar on ethics in politics. It is international in nature and has been weaponised in the Scottish Referendum in 2014, the Brexit Referendum in 2016 and in elections since then. Disinformation can be initiated and permitted by those who hold media power, and right now the safeguards on misinformation and disinformation are woefully inadequate. It costs lives.

In my local paper this week, there are stories, likely mirrored by others around the country, or people who have died as a result of disinformation. Ordinary people, who were discouraged from taking the vaccine as a result of what they had been reading on social media. They are dead now, leaving bereaved relatives, children without a parent and a sense of sadness – how can we be in a position where basic science can be misreported on social media to the extent that people die as a result?

The debate is moving rapidly and we now have to consider and debate our response to proposed vaccine passports and restrictions on the unvaccinated. We can see the disproportionate impact on the socio-economically disadvantaged, minority ethnicities and those who on ethical grounds feel they can’t vaccinate. However, we also remain at risk of a resurgence of a new variant, one that potentially escapes the vaccines in circulation and puts us all back at risk. In a fast-moving debate, the Green Party needs to continue to rely on the scientific recommendations and be guided by them in any policy response. 

The climate emergency has taken over from Covid as the headline news in the week I’ve written this article, but all things are linked. To be trusted to deal with the immense challenge the Climate Emergency brings, we are going to need voters to also trust us on health, on education and on a host of other domestic policies. Making policy informed by the best scientific guidance is crucial as we move forward from here in the ongoing Covid pandemic.