The Public Accounts Committee has ‘challenged the government to reduce the overall number of unvaccinated people to 2.5 million and achieve an 80% uptake for first boosters within four months.’ Vaccinating a further 500,000 adults may seem like a comparatively minor task when 53,684,877 people have received at least their first dose, but those who remain unvaccinated will not be easy to persuade.
NHS England and the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) have been urged by MPs to reach those who have not yet received the vaccine, but those who remain unvaccinated at this point in time are arguably unlikely to change their minds. They have seen covid vaccines promoted for over a year now and have resisted at every stage – perhaps because the vaccine has been pushed so much.
The more the covid vaccine is pushed by the government and the health service, the more vaccine sceptics double down on their stance. The seeming lack of choice around whether to have the vaccine was one of the many things that vaccine sceptics initially took issue with; they worried about why the government was so insistent, and grew increasingly concerned as the campaigns promoting the covid vaccine ramped up. If people distrust the vaccine and reasons behind the government’s insistence on everyone receiving it, pushing vaccinations harder will only enhance their worries instead of alleviating them.
A more relaxed approach to offering vaccines to the remaining unvaccinated adults in the UK may seem counter-intuitive, but it may be the most effective route to reaching the most sceptical members of the public.
When we have already formed an opinion on a topic – be it vaccines, politics, or the latest Netflix show – we tend to pay the most attention to information that supports our existing viewpoint. This attentional bias (the tendency to pay attention to some things while simultaneously ignoring others) is often completely unconscious but permeates many aspects of our lives.
We might notice negative articles about the political party we oppose and internalise the facts they contain, but not be so quick to read (or take seriously) pieces against the party we support. Similarly, people who are worried about the risks of vaccines may focus intently on stories about severe side effects, while those who are pro-vaccines could read the same story and focus on the fact that those effects are extremely rare.
On top of this, social media sites show users the content they are most likely to interact with, often creating echo chambers of similar ideas. We also create these echo chambers for ourselves, following people we agree with and who reaffirm our stances. The content one person sees in their pro-vaccine communities online will be very different to the ones that appear on the newsfeed of someone who is anti-vaccine.
Historical data shows that, ‘for several vaccines, Black African and Black Caribbean groups are less likely to be vaccinated (50%) compared to White groups (70%).’ While willingness to have the covid vaccine in particular is generally high (a 2020 figure suggests 82% of people were willing to get the vaccine), ‘marked differences existed by ethnicity, with Black ethnic groups the most likely to be COVID-19 vaccine hesitant followed by the Pakistani/Bangladeshi group.’
With BAME people at greater risk of adverse covid outcomes, it’s essential that unvaccinated members of these communities are reached to reduce hospitalisations and deaths.
As covid cases rise, MPs have urged NHS England and UKHSA to ‘urgently evaluate which methods are most effective for increasing uptake, including fresh approaches to tackle the persistent low uptake observed in some ethnic groups.’ What these ‘fresh approaches’ will be remains to be seen, but finding an answer is a matter of urgency. Promoting the safety of vaccines in an easily digestible format and non-forceful manner will undoubtedly play an integral role.
One thing we can all do as individuals is continue to engage in conversations with the unvaccinated people around us. Providing people with the necessary information to make their own informed choices – and not getting angry if those choices do not align with our own – is key. It may be easy to slip into arguments or simply avoid the subject altogether, but considerate – and considered – discussion can make a world of difference.