The head of NHS England says “meaningful progress” has been made to overcome vaccine hesitancy, but the country remains in battle against a “pandemic of disinformation”.
Sir Simon Stevens said progress is being made on uptake among black and south Asian communities, and he believes the involvement of local religious leaders will help build momentum in groups with concerns.
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But he said the country is up against a “dual epidemic” and must fight both the virus and disinformation with “equal vigour”.
Press Gazette reported back in July 2020 on research which showed that people who use social media for their news were less likely to take a vaccine.
It found that more than a fifth of Britons were unlikely to take a vaccine and that this problem was fuelled by misinformation shared on social media.
Another report found some 400 anti-vaccine accounts on Twitter, Youtube, Instagram and Facebook.
In October research from Reuters found that “infodemically vulnerable” people in the UK fell from 6% of the UK population early on in the Covid-19 crisis to 15% by late August – an estimated 8m people in total.
Members of the group “consume little to no news and information about Covid-19 and do not trust it even if it reaches them”, leaving them at more risk of being both uninformed and misinformed.
Stevens told a Downing Street press conference: “There is a real concern about the hesitancy on the part of some black and South Asian communities to accept the vaccine offer they are receiving, either at work if they are a health or social care worker, or as a member of the public.
“What is happening about that is that there is a huge effort involving community leaders, faith leaders, the way in which the NHS itself is administering the vaccine programme to overcome that.
“Although the start was slower in terms of the uptake in some of those communities, I think we are now seeing meaningful progress.”
Vaccination sites have included mosques and an orthodox Jewish site was delivering jabs up until midnight over the weekend, Sir Simon said.
Organisations such as the NHS Race and Health Observatory have been holding webinars to address hesitancy and encourage people to make reasoned decisions over taking the vaccine, based upon facts from experts.
He added: “Part of what we are up against is a dual epidemic – we are up against the pandemic of Covid and we are up against the pandemic of disinformation and the deliberate sowing of mistrust and we have got to fight both with equal vigour.”
England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said many people may not take up an offer immediately, but will do subsequently.
He said: “It’s not a matter of refusal, it’s a matter of thinking about it and then actually moving on to do so.
“All of us think this is critical, to support people to make sure we combat misinformation.”
Prof Whitty said he was meeting medical leaders from different ethnic groups on Monday night “to share experiences and share how we can work out how to make sure people are getting absolutely accurate information that makes clear that the risks of the vaccine are massively lower than the risks of getting this infection”.