From its successful gamble on new vaccines, to appointing Kate Bingham as the Head of the Vaccine Taskforce, the Government has played a blinder on its vaccination programme.
So has the NHS, which has rolled out vaccinations with tremendous speed. As a result, hospitalisations and deaths have dramatically dropped and the Government is thinking about the next phase of its roll out.
In particular, it will be considering how to get young people on board with Operation Vaccine. As I have previously written for ConservativeHome, anti-vax sentiment is actually very low among the population. Most people are likely to get the vaccine.
But there is some evidence of “vaccine hesitancy”; those who are worried about side effects or unsure whether they need a vaccine at all. Research has shown hesitancy to be higher among ethnic minority groups and 18-34-year-old women. In general, hesitancy increases as you go further down the age groups.
To give some examples of hesitancy: in a survey of over 170,000 people, Imperial College London and Ipsos Mori found that 99 per cent of over 80s said they’d accept a vaccine compared to 83 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds.
The Office for National Statistics also found that 17 per cent of 16 to 29-year-olds reported being hesitant to get a vaccine compared to one per cent of over-70s. Although these figures are still fairly low, the Government wants to vaccinate as many people as possible – so it must increase uptake here.
How does it do this? Vaccination centres and medical practitioners have clearly been working very hard to provide information. But most people’s attention has been on one big news story, which is that the Government is considering making “Covid certificates compulsory to enter pubs” in order to nudge young people towards the inoculation centre.
One government source is quoted as saying: “If the argument on health grounds doesn’t really wash because young people think they’re going to be fine and their grandparents and parents have all taken it, the strongest nudge is: ‘You’re not going to be able to be as free as you’d like.’ Not being allowed into pubs may focus minds.”
This is not the only “nudge” story around vaccines. The Government has also written to Premier League stars asking them to “encourage Brits under 30” to get a Covid jab (because we all love football..).
Professor John Drury of the University of Sussex, a government scientific adviser, has warned against “crude” approaches to getting young people vaccinated, and he’s right. The small group showing vaccine hesitancy (and it is small) needs an information avalanche, not footballer selfies or whatever we are to be treated with.
Pavlovian measures can not only be counterproductive, but treat young people with questions about the vaccine as if they’re in the same category as David Icke. The most obvious reason young people rate themselves “unlikely” to get a vaccine is because they have a lower risk for Coronavirus.
Even Bingham said in October 2020: “People keep talking about ‘time to vaccinate the whole population’, but that is misguided… There’s going to be no vaccination of people under 18. It’s an adult-only vaccine, for people over 50, focusing on health workers and care home workers and the vulnerable.” So it’s not exactly out of the question for other people to hold a similar view.
The Government’s job should be to make the case as strongly as possible why all adults are now expected to get vaccinated, as we move faster towards lower age groups. For instance, lots of young people care about stopping transmission of the virus (wanting to protect their families). Maybe that is a more motivating factor than weighing up individual risk.
In all of this, we should remember that in the lead up to the initial vaccines, there was a lot of fearmongering about anti-vaxxers, whose numbers were exaggerated. Labour wanted to make emergency legislation for “vaccine misinformation”, imagining a Piers Corbyn army running towards us, but the reality was that lots of people wanted a vaccination.
People can weigh up information. That’s why, when talking about low risk groups, the Government simply needs to present its case as much as possible. At the moment the message comes across as “no vaccine, no pub”. It feels controversial to say this long into the Coronavirus crisis, but personal responsibility and trust must soon make a return.