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7 April 2021

The government’s vaccine communications strategy is leading to dangerous headlines

Revealing complex information live is likely to go wrong.

By Stephen Bush

The under-30s will be offered an alternative to the AstraZeneca vaccine where available, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has announced.

This does not mean and I cannot stress this enough that under-30s should not take the AstraZeneca vaccine where offered. (The risk of blood clots from the AstraZeneca vaccine as reported by the MHRA is lower than that from the combined contraceptive pill.) Nor does it mean that under-30s will not be allowed to take the AstraZeneca vaccine, or that under-30s who have already received an AstraZeneca jab will not be offered a second dose.

What it means is that if you are under 30, you will be offered an alternative to the AstraZeneca vaccine where available. What is not yet clear is whether this will slightly alter the nature of the vaccine roll-out: local NHS trusts may well opt to prioritise under-30s when they do have doses of the Moderna, Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson vaccines and essentially operate a “two-tier” approach, where those over 30 are offered the AstraZeneca vaccine first and those under 30 are offered alternatives.

But the government’s announcement has triggered a series of rushed tweets, headlines and stories suggesting that under-30s will not be offered the AstraZeneca vaccine  a very different narrative to the reality.

The responsibility for this lies in part with individual organisations, but it is also an inevitable consequence of the commercial ecosystem most media organisations operate in. Announcing a complex series of healthcare-related announcements in a live press conference always carries the increased risk of inaccurate headlines and tweets as journalists are incentivised to publish quickly and rapidly.

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There already exists a handy device to tackle this problem: it’s called “an embargo”  when organisations give journalists information ahead of time in order to avoid the inaccurate headlines that often result from the pressure of covering a live event. As I wrote this morning, one problem is that the British government has been bad at speaking with one voice during the pandemic: specialist and more measured briefings are put on for health and science correspondents but they aren’t given sufficient access to political briefings, while the same dynamic happens in reverse with political journalists and medical announcements. The result has, consistently been poor headlines and confusion among the public.

It is, to be frank, unclear what the value of running the announcement live was in this instance. The balance of risks around whether young people  particularly those who are on the contraceptive pill and already carry a greater risk of increased blood clots are complex, and they are not well-suited to the theatre of a live press conference.

You can fairly complain that some media organisations do not have the excuse of commercial imperatives and are still getting this stuff wrong, but the government is the market-maker here: a change of approach from it would also lead to a change in approach from media organisations.

It comes back to the government’s longest-running communications problem during this crisis: the inability to recognise that a pandemic is genuinely different to other events, and to communicate differently and more slowly as a result. The British public’s longstanding willingness to get vaccinated has thus far proved resistant to any problems as a result of government communications. The risk of today’s announcement and the resulting confusion is that it won’t continue to do so.