Yesterday it was reported that over 10 million doses of the Coronavirus vaccine have been given to members of the UK public, with 9 out of 10 of those over 75 having received their first vaccine dose. In an era of political and social polarisation, this is a rare unifying achievement that is garnering not only domestic praise, but acknowledgement from around the globe. There of course remains a long way to go – the two-dose nature of the vaccine means that many will require a second dose to be fully protected from the virus, but nevertheless the rate of vaccination in the UK has outpaced almost all other countries, with only Israel ahead with a 60% vaccination rate compared to the UK’s 15.5%. The government put the scale of the current effort into context by stating that the equivalent of 111 Wembley Stadiums full of people have been vaccinated in just 8 weeks, as the country remains on track to meet its ambitious vaccination targets.
Britain’s leading medical journal The Lancet added to the good news, stating that the AstraZeneca vaccine provides 76% effective protection between the first and second dose, and further in the same study indicated that the vaccine may substantially reduce transmission. This means it is likely those who have been immunised cannot transmit the disease. With a full year of lockdowns and restrictions on our personal liberties fast approaching, it seems now tentatively that the end of the crisis could be in sight. While most are breathing a sigh of relief that this chapter may soon finally be over, and mourning those lost along the way, there remains a sizable minority that are sceptical about the potential side effects and efficacy of the vaccine. The Lancet in 2020 cited a report by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) which stated that 31 million people follow anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, and 17 million people subscribe to similar accounts on YouTube.
This has alarmed policy makers and prompted them to exert pressure on tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google with a roundtable discussion last year agreeing basic principles such as that no platform should profit or promote anti-vaccine misinformation, and that platforms should guarantee that misinformation once flagged by governmental bodies will be removed quickly. Some however worry these measures do not go far enough, and a recent government report has highlighted that BAME communities are having a lower uptake of the vaccine, in part due to their concerns regarding vaccine safety and efficacy. GPonline, a news source for GPs explicitly named disinformation as a leading factor in low BAME uptake, stating: ‘GPs said false information about the contents of vaccines being spread on social media and a lack of public education are contributing to patients not attending clinics or being reluctant to come forward for vaccination.’ In response a high-profile media campaign featuring BAME figures such as Meera Syal and comedian Romesh Ranganathan has been launched, hoping to boost confidence in the vaccine and increase BAME uptake.
To what extent anti-vaccine sentiment may impede the ultimate success of the UK’s vaccination programme remains to be seen, but it is likely its overall impact will be small. As the number of those vaccinated grows, claims of harmful side effects will be easier to refute, and social pressures will likely sway the reluctant as travel, work, and other activities will become vaccination contingent. It is also important to remember that anti-vaccination sentiment has always existed, with Thomas Hager in his book 10 Drugs that Changed the World arguing that it is precisely because vaccines are successful that the anti-vaccine movement has been allowed to flourish. Without the horrors of diseases such as Smallpox, which was eradicated through an effective vaccination programme, the public is inclined to focus more on the perceived downside of vaccines as opposed to their abundant benefits. In short, vaccinations have been so successful in eradicating many of the world’s most vicious diseases, that generations growing up today in the absence of these diseases doubt their value.
However, a contemporary cautionary tale may sway the opinion of these stubborn doubters. The recent spat between the UK and the EU has brought into sharp focus what the absence of an effective vaccination programme will mean for the public of countries such as Germany and France. As the UK steams ahead, more lockdowns, more restrictions, more deaths, and more misery remains on the cards for states lagging behind. This is exactly why the diplomatic row became so acrimonious so quickly; the availability of vaccines is a matter of life and death, as well as the key to a return of liberty and normality. We should therefore be grateful for the rapid rate of the vaccine rollout in the UK, and the Herculean effort that has gone into it. Ultimately, while there will always be doubters and potential hiccups, the proof will be in the results. It may well be the case that the UK will be one of the first states to return to a semblance of a pre-Covid way of life, despite those doubting the path it has taken. The end, after all, could be in sight.