Robert Halfon: We need more groups like Us for Them, one of the few campaigners for pupils’ rights during lockdown

14 Jul

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

If there were an Oscar for campaigning I would, without hesitation, give it to the pressure group Us for Them. Set up in the height of the pandemic, by a group of families worried about school closures and the damage to children, these parents – with minimal funding – have fought night and day on behalf of pupils.

Maligned in some left-wing quarters as “right-wing extremists”, “anti-vaxxers” and “Covid deniers” (all untrue), Us for Them has worked tirelessly to get children back into school. Especially when it was unfashionable to do so. Its representatives have taken on the might of the education unions, the sleepy establishment and sections of the Labour Party. They have presented their case cogently and coherently in newspapers and on television. All whilst keeping up a relentless social media presence.

Sadly, as parents, they know first hand of the horrific impact that the “schooldown” has had upon pupils. Falling educational attainment, a mental health epidemic, safeguarding hazards and future loss of lifetime earnings. Us for Them speaks with passion and real emotion because some representatives’ own children have been affected, especially in terms of their mental health. Us for Them puts significant pressure on the Government to get our children back into school and learning again.

You do not have to agree with everything members say, but their fundamentals should be cast in stone: the last year has been a national disaster for our young people. Never again should we shut our schools – except in extreme circumstances. Moreover, everything possible should be done to repair the damage over the coming years and months.

Parents and children have been lucky to have a trade union like Us for Them working hard in their interests. Unlike some of the education unions, Us for Them’s campaign was not about opportunistic politics and challenging the Government, it was just focused on the children. If you listen to one podcast this week, turn on the latest Telegraph Planet Normal.  In this episode, Us for Them parents set out why they formed, what they have done and all that they have achieved. I am glad to have met some of these remarkable individuals.

Groups, such as Us for Them, that champion the rights of parents and children are needed more than ever. Last Friday, in my constituency surgery, I met a parent who told me that her child of five, having heard the “wash your hands” mantra, now has a new compulsive obsessive disorder in that she keeps cleaning her hands. So much so that they are sore and bleeding.

My constituent’s other child has also developed significant anxieties. Both had been perfectly healthy and happy children before school closures. I regularly visit schools, and every time I speak to pupils many of them tell me that their mental health suffered significantly during the lockdowns.

Even before Coronavirus, there was a significant rise in the number of young people experiencing mental health difficulties. Social media likely played a large part in causing this increase. Unless remedial action is taken, this has the potential to become a national emergency post-Covid. It is good that the Government has ploughed more funds into mental health and guaranteed an extra £17 million for schools.

However, more needs to be done, including a nationwide assessment of children, not just in terms of their lost academic attainment but also the impact on their mental health. That way, the Department for Education would know the true extent of the problem and have the ability to develop policies accordingly. Although there are now more mental health professionals in schools, they need to be placed in every educational establishment to help pupils, parents, teachers and support staff. We cannot afford to sweep these problems under the carpet any longer.

The fallout from school closures has created other problems too. Research from the respected Centre for Social Justice, shows that 93,500 children have not returned to school (or are in school less than 50 per cent of the time) since full reopening in March. I call these pupils “the ghost children” because they are lost to education.

The welcome £3 billion catch-up programme will not help these children. They are not in school to benefit from the investment. The Government needs to look at parental engagement programmes, like that of the Feltham Reach Academy, to try and get these pupils back into school. The Government should also see whether the Troubled Families Programme could expand its reach to cover absent school children.

Meanwhile, in schools, we have Argentinian levels of hyperinflation in terms of lost learning. Last week, 640,000 children were sent home because of Covid-19 rules. This figure sat at 385,000 the week before. Pupils in Year 10 have been missing one in four face-to-face teaching days. If proper examinations are going to take place next year, what is the solution to ensure a level playing field for the hundreds of thousands of students who have missed lessons? Perhaps that is a question for another day. No doubt Us for Them will have some ready answers.

It’s vaccine apprehension, not anti-vaxxers, that public information campaigns need to tackle most

20 Jan

In December last year, readers of this site may remember I wrote an article in which I cautioned on condemning everyone who has concerns about the Coronavirus vaccine.

It made the point that there’s a huge difference between those who exhibit hesitancy and militant anti-vaxxers, who receive the most media attention.

Much of my article was based on research by Opinium, the polling agency, which surveyed public attitudes towards the Coronavirus vaccine. Far from suggesting we will soon be under siege from an army of Piers Corbyns, it showed that few people exhibit hardline anti-vaccine sentiment.

However, it’s not uncommon for the public to be anxious about aspects of the vaccine, whether that’s the side effects, or something else.

As the Government ramps up its vaccination roll-out, there will be questions about how to deal with anti-vaxxers. There’s no doubt they exist and can be extremely noisy. But we have to be careful not to exaggerate their number, nor conflate them with people who want more information, nor use the harshest strategies available, such as controlling online misinformation, in a way that’s disproportionate to the anti-vaxxer threat.

Time would be better spent addressing more common worries about the vaccine. While it should be pointed out that most of the population wants a vaccine (YouGov found that only two per cent of respondents were opposed to one generally), several polls have shed a light on some of the groups with apprehension. 

One researcher found in a survey of 55,000 people that 18-34-year-old women rated themselves least likely to have a jab, with fears over fertility commonly cited. Australia has seen a similar trend – with 30-39 year old women feeling the most concerned about the jab. Thus its government has released a public information ad to address this.

Research has also shown that ethnic minorities have concerns about the vaccine, with Focaldata finding that just a third (33 per cent) were likely to have a jab. The Government has hired a PR firm to boost take-up among Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and eastern European people, and Nadhim Zahawi, who’s overseeing the Government’s vaccine approach, has also been engaging with BAME and faith communities to support the vaccine roll out.

Lastly, research has also shown that young people rate themselves less likely to take the vaccine, with 36 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds saying they’d have it.

The Government still hasn’t set any sort of target on how much of the population it wants to get immunised yet – much of which depends on how vaccines affect transmission – but it clearly has to think about how to get this cohort on board if it wants a high percentage of the population inoculated. 

A Department of Health source informed me that the Government is planning more in the next few days – and that it would probably tweak its current strategy – what that means remains to be seen…

But in the meantime, it’s important that we accurately diagnose the reasons for vaccine hesitancy, instead of going for a heavyweight anti-vax strategy. It doesn’t reflect the data available, and takes resources from where they’re needed most: engagement.

Don’t stereotype anti-vaxxers. They might not be who you think.

5 Dec

This week has been a jubilant one for the UK, with news that the Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine has been approved. Ministers are no doubt delighted that their decision to buy 350 million doses of different vaccines finally seems to be paying off.

But one group that is causing them less cheer is “anti-vaxxers”. There are concerns that they could derail Jonathan Van-Tam’s train to normality, with the Labour Party calling for ministers to clamp down on anti-vaccination fake news.

Reading the newspapers you could be forgiven for thinking we were in for an epic battle between the Government and an army of conspiracy theorists, no doubt fuelled by all the coverage of anti-lockdown protests in central London. But the reality is more complicated than that…

The first thing to say is that, judging by polling figures, there aren’t actually that many people who would point blank refuse a vaccine. According to one YouGov poll, for instance, only 21 per cent of people said that they were “unlikely” to take the Covid vaccine (11 per cent “very unlikely” and 10 per cent “fairly unlikely”.)

Furthermore, the 21 per cent were mostly people who wanted more information. 10 per cent wanted to see if the vaccine is safe, and three per cent felt that they were low risk for the virus, and didn’t need a vaccine. Only two per cent were opposed to vaccines generally.

To put this in context, 67 of the public are “likely” to take the vaccine, with 12 per cent saying they don’t know.

One of the biggest predictors of how “likely” people are to take the vaccine is “perceived vulnerability”, which goes up with age. Over 65 year olds are the most “likely” group to want the vaccine, with 81 per cent of them putting this answer.

The percentage putting “likely” declines as age does, but the majority of 25-49 year olds and adults under the age of 25 (58 and 63 per cent respectively) still put “likely”.

In short, any ideas that “anti-vaxxers” will predominantly look like David Icke (68) or Piers Corbyn (73) are misconceived. It’s younger groups that need more information, but it’s not “anti-vax” sentiment the Government needs to tackle, but anxiety.

This has been a major finding from Opinium, the strategic insight agency. As Chris Curtis, its Senior Research Manager tells me, “There isn’t much sign that the Coronavirus conspiracy theories spreading on certain parts of the internet are getting much cut through, with few saying they believe them. However, there is a much wider group that have more general apprehensions surrounding the vaccine, particularly regarding the side effects.”

Opinium has conducted fascinating research into this area. It looked at 2,000 people, alongside their current voting intention, to find out their views on the vaccine.

One question was “If a vaccine was available and the government recommended that people like you took it, how likely to unlikely would you be to take the vaccine?”

Here are the responses:

Likely:

  • Conservative: 80 per cent
  • Plaid Cymru: 79 per cent
  • Liberal Democrat: 75 per cent
  • Labour: 73 per cent
  • Green: 64 per cent
  • SNP: 60 per cent
  • UKIP: 58 per cent
  • Some other party: 35 per cent

73 per cent of Remainers and 70 per cent of Leavers said “likely”.

In terms of people who replied “unlikely”, the top outcome was “some other party” at 55 per cent followed by the SNP at 32 per cent.

Opinium also asked how worried, if at all, respondents were that a vaccine won’t be safe.

Worried:

  • Plaid Cymru: 70 per cent
  • SNP: 62 per cent
  • Some other party: 62 per cent
  • UKIP: 55 per cent
  • Labour: 49 per cent
  • Liberal Democrat: 49 per cent
  • Conservative: 44 per cent
  • Green: 41 per cent

47 per cent of Remainers were worried compared to 50 per cent of Leavers.

In terms of people who replied “not worried”, the top outcome was Greens at 57 per cent, followed by Conservatives at 50 per cent.

When Opinium asked respondents how worried they were that a vaccine won’t be effective, they gave these answers:

Worried:

  • Plaid Cymru: 72 per cent
  • SNP: 72 per cent
  • Some other party: 52 per cent
  • Labour: 46 per cent
  • UKIP: 46 per cent
  • Liberal Democrat: 45 per cent
  • Conservative: 43 per cent
  • Green: 41 per cent

47 per cent of Remainers and 45 per cent of Leavers were worried.

Opinium also asked respondents how worried they were that a vaccine might have side effects:

Worried:

  • SNP: 73 per cent
  • Plaid Cymru: 70 per cent
  • UKIP: 66 per cent
  • Some other party: 65 per cent
  • Labour: 53 per cent
  • Liberal Democrat: 53 per cent
  • Green: 53 per cent
  • Conservative: 52 per cent

There are lots of things you could say about the data.

For starters, irregardless of voting invention, the majority of respondents were worried about side effects.

Second, SNP and Plaid Cymru consistently appear some of the most worried about the vaccine’s efficacy and side effects (although it’s worth pointing out that Plaid Cymru scores second highest for likelihood of taking it). What does this mean for the devolved administrations and a vaccine information campaign?

It’s also worth noting that “some other party” ranks high for having concerns about the vaccine. Who are these voters, if they do not fall under the other parties? And how does the Government reach out to them?

Interestingly, Green voters are often at the more “chilled” end of the spectrum. The other parties seem to group together quite a lot, and Leavers and Remainers often have small differences between how they vote (reminiscent of 2016’s referendum). 

Another interesting area to explore is the gender of some of the recipients, with Opinium finding 64 per cent of women compared to 51 per cent of men have concerns about side effects. Speaking about the overall findings of the research, Curtis says: “The government will need to work hard to alleviate fears [among women and young people] if they want to ensure there is a high uptake of the vaccine.”

So perhaps we need to move our language about “anti-vaxxers” to “vaccine apprehension”. It is not so much hardline attitudes, but anxiety that the Government needs to tackle. 

It’s interesting to note a YouGov poll this week showing that 66 per cent of the public want Matt Hancock to take the vaccine on TV, and some of this must surely reflect the need for more reassurance.

That’s why the media has to be careful about how they frame the issue, and not fall into the habit of labelling everyone with worries as an “anti-vaxxer”. Labour, too, could spend more time discussing the vaccine, as opposed to how to quash misinformation, which people could see as undermining the ability to ask questions. By all indications, the majority of the public are open to vaccines – it’s boosting confidence that’s the next step.