“There are still almost nine million people eligible who haven’t had their booster”, were the words of Boris Johnson at Tuesday’s press conference. Although the UK has had a tremendous vaccination programme, with 90 per cent of people over the age of 12 having had a single jab, and 80 per cent their second, the Government still wants to drive home, as much as possible, the need for boosters.
It is no wonder the Government is being pushy. The unvaccinated, and those whose with waning immunity from previous doses of the vaccine, particularly older age groups, are at risk of hospitalisation and death from the virus – at a time when Coronavirus has become more transmissible, due to the Omicron variant. They also put a strain on the NHS – with one London doctor recently warning that 80 to 90 per cent of the patients in intensive care were unvaccinated – making it more likely that the Government would have to consider lockdown(s) again.
Analyses show who the Government has in its sights, as it tries to Get Boosters Done. There are, for starters, regional disparities. London is a big “problem area” as far jabs are concerned, where only 39 per cent had had their booster and 69 per cent have had their first dose of the vaccine. This is in stark contrast to the South West of the UK, where the statistics stand at 62 per cent and 86 per cent, respectively.
Then there’s more specific demographic data. An analysis of 20 million NHS records by OpenSAFELY group, run by Oxford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, shows that take up is lower among ethnic minorities.
Polls have also shown previously that young people, and women, were more likely to be hesitant about getting the jab. According to the Office of National Statistics, the most common reasons people are avoiding their booster are: thinking it will not offer extra protection (45 per cent of respondents); “thinking the first and second vaccine will be enough to keep safe” (33 per cent); “being worried about having a bad reaction to the booster vaccine” (29 per cent) and “being worried about long-term effects on health” (17 per cent).
With that in mind, is the Government’s approach to the unjabbed the correct one? While it is not as extreme as France, where Emmanuel Macron has said he wants to ““p*ss off” the unvaccinated, or Austria, which is to have a lockdown for the same group, its strategy is still fairly hardline.
Its most stringent measure is vaccine passports, meaning that people will be prohibited for spaces, such as large events and nightclubs, should they be unable to provide a negative Covid result and not have had two jabs. Already there are signs that these measures will escalate, with boosters becoming a requirement for vaccine passports and travel. Johnson even warned that there could even be a “national debate” on mandatory jabs, in perhaps his least libertarian move ever.
Listening to the Prime Minister on Tuesday, it struck me that the current tactics will not persuade those most reluctant. The fact is that passports appeal to those who are content with a strong state. But one reason others aren’t getting a jab is precisely because they are wary of it, and thus will not respond well to threats to their freedoms.
In general, there have been some very counterproductive efforts to Get Britain Jabbed. The Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, recently declared that Jesus would have got a jab and, around the same time, Tony Blair said that anyone who is eligible and refused the vaccine is an “idiot”. Rather like how militant Remainers shouted insults at Brexiteers, the result is to alienate those whom one wants to persuade.
It’s worth saying that behind the scenes the Government has taken more of a “soft” approach to encouraging jab uptake. Last year it hired MMC, a specialist agency for diverse communities, to boost take up among minority groups. There have also been gentle campaigns, one involving TV adverts with the message “every vaccination gives us hope”, targeted at over-50s who are hesitant.
But perhaps the Government can go further with these methods. Professor Andrew Pollard, Chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccine and Immunisation, and whom I wrote about yesterday, said that the solution to the unvaccinated lies in “a conversation with community leaders, or trusted person, such as a GP.” Surely the Government’s success in cutting that nine million figure relies on building trust, alleviating fears and connecting with communities.
The Government also needs to make more of a case to young people as to why they should keep getting jabbed when they are low risk on aggregate. If the answer is “civil duty” – so as to cut transmission in the population – maybe it is better to spell this out, as many will think they don’t personally need it. The default at the moment is to treat youngsters as if they have done great wrong if they haven’t had a booster, despite the enormous sacrifices they made at other points in the pandemic. All in all, “gently does it”, might be the best advice to persuading all the unjabbed.