In mid-March, after the EU regulator reported concerns about rare blood clots linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine, England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam went on television to dispel fears.
“All medicines have side effects and all medicines have benefits,” he said. “That’s the whole point, that you have to look at both sides and say: ‘How big are the benefits in relation to the risks?’” He then picked up a packet of paracetamol and read out the potential side effects, including mouth sores, jaundice and bruising.
“Those are documented rare side effects of paracetamol,” he said, “but we all understand the benefits of them and this is no different a situation… We have very clear evidence that these vaccines are beneficial and save lives from what is otherwise, for some people… a potentially lethal disease.”
This message from Van-Tam – its clarity, urgency and bluntness – was designed to combat a worry all over the world: that any sign of risk associated with the Covid jabs would encourage vaccine hesitancy.
The last year has been riddled with misinformation, and one of the most popular conspiracy theories spread online is that Covid-19 is a government plot – that the virus is a hoax or was manmade, and that the vaccines allow governments to inject a microchip into the global population. Since March 2020, it has been feared that, even if the vaccines were effective and able to end the pandemic, a wave of anti-vaxx sentiment would destroy this progress.
But despite concerns, data from the Office of National Statistics published last month shows that hesitancy around coronavirus vaccines is significantly lower than hesitancy around long-standing vaccinations, such as those for measles or HPV. The survey, taken between January and February, found 94 per cent of adults reported a positive sentiment towards the vaccine. Not only that: the already low hesitancy rates have actually decreased since the roll-out began in December, with 80 per cent of people who originally said they wouldn’t take it reporting they have since changed their minds.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to redress the 6 per cent hesitancy rate (it typically requires 95 per cent of the population to be immune to the virus to prevent outbreaks, so the UK would fall just short of this), but it does mean something is working – and working well – to make the coronavirus vaccines appealing.
It would be easy for the government to chalk this up as a win. It feels straightforward: the strength of their careful messaging has led to an increased uptake in vaccinations. The roll-out in the UK has been very successful, and so it seems fair to give the government credit.
But has the messaging we’ve seen in the last four months, with its cleverness and clarity, really had a meaningful impact on the number of people willing to get vaccinated? And if not – what would be the harm of the government claiming credit for vaccine uptake that it didn’t itself achieve?
While it’s not certain why people are more willing to take Covid vaccines than others, we do know why people don’t get vaccinated, overall, as much as they used to. There has been a steady drop in vaccine uptakes for diseases for which we’ve had jabs for decades, including whooping cough, diphtheria and meningitis, alongside measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). Experts largely suggest the rise of anti-vaxx misinformation on social media has led to the decline in vaccine confidence, driving unfounded concerns about safety – that vaccines will cause the disease they are meant to protect against, that they will have life-changing side effects, or even be deadly.
Regarding Covid vaccines, according to the ONS, the causes of vaccine hesitancy are almost exactly the same concerns: the top reasons include fear of side effects, of long-term health effects, and concerns around safety.
What drives us to get vaccinated? The most likely answer is our collective fatigue. What we want more than anything – for life to return to normal – seems the most obvious factor that would topple all of these concerns. In August, only 53 per cent of Britons said they’d be willing to be vaccinated – after one lockdown, in the height of a summer in which many believed the pandemic was beginning to taper off. We had stamina and it felt almost impossible to think we’d be at the point we are at now. So we’re willing, despite any residual concerns, to take the risk and get jabbed.
But that desperation will be short-lived. As the vaccines make our lives normal again, the conversation around getting vaccinated will naturally become less urgent. And as that conversation slips away, the anti-vaccination movement is likely to gain ground again – decreasing Covid vaccine confidence, just as it’s done with every other major disease. If we relax after this first round of vaccination is finished, what happens when we need everyone to get boosters? What about when new variants cause outbreaks and we have to adapt new vaccines?
Instead, the government needs to become proactive in telling people that to maintain this freedom, to live life as close to normal as possible, vaccinations will need to happen on a regular basis. It needs to start telling people, now, to think about further vaccinations later this year or next. If it fails to do so, the UK will fly blindly into the same problem of decreasing vaccine confidence that it has struggled to tackle with other diseases.
There’s no doubt that we should be confident about a return to semi-normality this summer, thanks to a roll-out that continues to go smoothly and inspires confidence for future vaccination schedules. But if we aren’t honest about what is really encouraging people to be vaccinated, and don’t capitalise on that right now, then we will end up in and out of pandemic life indefinitely as the anti-vaxx movement exploits our oversight.