The government needs the right message – and the right messenger – to ensure the UK is protected from the coronavirus.
The commencement of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine roll-out is axiomatically good news. It now means Britain has two vaccines (the Pfizer-BioNTech came first) being administered to all those deemed priority groups. And there is no doubt that the rate of the vaccination rollout will have to be accelerated significantly in the coming weeks and months so we can see the end of this Covid-19 nightmare sooner.
But the broad assumption made so far has been that making the vaccination available will mean people will consent to it. That assumption may have force. For instance, research by the Royal Society of Public Health reveals that 76% of the UK public would consent to a Covid-19 vaccine if advised by a health professional to do so, with just 8% stating that they would be very unlikely to do so.
That all said, there is no guarantee that the research above accurately reflects the mood of the nation, and anecdotally, there appears to be a reasonable chunk of people – who do not ordinarily fall into the categories of ‘anti-vaxxers’ – that are quietly fearful of submitting to vaccines that have been produced at lightning speed. A testament to this, upon the UK’s regulatory approval of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, one poll indicated that 35% are unlikely to take it. This shows there may be problems with the vaccine take-up.
Whatever the flaws and incoherence of the arguments around potential risks of any Covid-19 vaccine, given how vital it is that as many people consent to it as possible, the government should not point-blank assume the take up of it will be the same in all age categories and communities.
As such, it is on the government to proactively encourage subscription to the vaccine – not by insulting those that have concerns (however rational or not) – but by trying to persuade reasonable and fair-minded people of the enormous benefits of agreeing to the vaccine. The issue is that trust and confidence in politicians, especially of those in Boris Johnson’s cabinet – after the ‘Cummings saga’ and reports of wasteful public sector contracts being awarded to friends of government ministers during this pandemic – may not be at an all-time high.
Consequently, politicians may not be best placed to put forward the case. This, at least, appears to have been recognised with reports of NHS England and Ministers drawing up a list of celebrities to bring on board to spearhead the Covid-19 vaccination campaign. One person that has the reputation, respect, and necessary neutrality to make a convincing case for the Covid-19 vaccination uptake is Sir David Attenborough. He has already been outspoken on the environmental threats of Covid-19, and undoubtedly, millions of Brits were presumably taken aback by Sir David’s heart-warming new year message for 2021 where he, commenting on the need to protect the environment and planet, powerfully said: “Together, we can turn things around”.
It is precisely those sorts of the clear, crisp and unifying messages from widely respected people that cut across the political divide which may get through to those individuals who are apprehensive about the Covid-19 vaccines. And it is perhaps prudent for the government to also consider, if they haven’t already, potential cheerleaders for individual communities in addition to age groups when devising their communications strategy. For instance, the Royal Society research also found that those from BAME backgrounds were only 57% likely to accept a Covid-19 vaccine compared with 79% of white respondents. Indeed, Sir David Attenborough need not be the only key figure that the government recruit. We know, after all, how successful Marcus Rashford’s campaign on ending child hunger has been.
What we have seen during this pandemic is how critical good communications is to public understanding and, ultimately, consent. Installing Sir David or any other high-profiled figure is not a panacea. The government will still have the herculean task of rolling out the vaccine itself which will require them to overcome many logistical challenges in the process. And inevitably, even with a compelling communications campaign, there will still remain some that are unmovable on the vaccine uptake.
But if the government gets the message – and the messenger right – there is a reasonable chance of persuading some of the otherwise unpersuaded on the vaccine, and if that happens, we will move one step closer to seeing this virus off.