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9 March 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 8:29am

How vaccine hesitancy could undermine the UK’s success

Young people, ethnic minorities and people living in poor areas are more likely to be unsure about receiving the jab.

By Freddie Hayward

Young people, ethnic minorities and people living in poor neighbourhoods are more likely to be hesitant about getting vaccinated, a new study has shown.

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that 16-29-year-olds are 17 times more likely than those over the age of 80 to be hesitant about being vaccinated.

More than one in six 16-29-year-olds (17 per cent) demonstrated hesitancy towards the vaccine – with the figure decreasing among older age groups to just one per cent among those over the age of 80. The age gap becomes even more stark after accounting for differences in health, education and ethnicity.

So far, vaccine take-up in the UK has been high among older groups – more than 90 per cent of over 70-year-olds have had their first dose as of 28 February (you can check how many people in your area have been vaccinated using our local tracker here).

But these figures – which are consistent with previous surveys on vaccine enthusiasm – could mean that the early success of the UK’s vaccination programme diminishes as more younger people are offered the jab.

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Younger people are less likely to want to get vaccinated
Percentage vaccine hesitancy by age group

Black people are the most at risk – and the most hesitant about getting vaccinated

The ONS study found that black people and those in other ethnic minority groups were the most hesitant about being vaccinated – with more than four in every ten black or black British adults unsure or sceptical about receiving the jab, compared to fewer than one in ten white people. The main reasons given for vaccine refusal were concerns over possible side-effects (55 per cent of black people who declined a vaccine) and wanting to wait to see how well the jab works (44 per cent).

More than two in five black people are hesitant about getting vaccinated
Percentage vaccine hesitancy by ethnicity

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The high rates of vaccine scepticism are in spite of black people suffering higher rates of death from Covid-19 than other ethnic groups. This disparity in deaths reflects differences in where people live, and social and economic factors, including working in jobs that have a higher risk of coronavirus infection. 

The reasons for the differences in vaccine hesitancy are less clear. Dr Ben Kasstan, a medical anthropologist at the University of Bristol, told the New Statesman: “The survey data does not tell us why concerns are more prevalent in these groups. It is important to examine whether concerns directed at coronavirus vaccines reflect broader issues of inequality that shape engagement with statutory and healthcare services.”

Black African men are the group most at risk of death from Covid-19 after taking age into account
Age adjusted number of times more likely to die from Covid-19 compared to white population, England, 2 March to 28 July 2020

Croydon BME Forum organises online talks with doctors to address concerns over vaccines in the community. Their CEO Andrew Brown said that these concerns included side-effects, the speed with which the vaccine was created and a mistrust of the government – all fuelled by misinformation on social media. 

In his view, persuading people in ethnic minority groups under the age 40 to receive the vaccine will be a significant challenge. “It’s going to be hard,” he said, “a lot of them think it’s not even real because it hasn’t really affected that age group.”

Poorer people are also less likely to trust the vaccine

People living in the most deprived areas in England are also more likely to be hesitant about getting vaccinated. Sixteen per cent of people living in the most deprived areas reported some vaccine hesitancy, compared to just seven per cent in the least deprived areas.

The study also found that people on higher incomes were less likely to be hesitant than those earning under £20,000 a year.

This chimes with the New Statesman’s own analysis of local vaccination figures, which found that England’s poorest areas have lower levels of vaccine uptake – despite having recorded consistently higher Covid-19 case rates throughout the pandemic.

People’s opinions on vaccines aren’t fixed. It is worth noting that international surveys have shown people’s confidence in the vaccine rising as more people have been vaccinated.

The vaccine roll-out has so far been a success in the UK. What these figures show is that it may become harder to maintain that success as the roll-out expands to lower age groups – and the people who are most at risk may be the ones that end up paying the price.

[See also: UK Covid tracker: the latest data by local authority as the roadmap out of lockdown begins]