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.