The myth of vaccine hesitancy
There is simply no evidence of a widespread refusal to take the Covid vaccine.
In the least surprising development of the whole pandemic, the government has started to waver on its promise to remove all social restrictions on 21 June. ‘Freedom day’ could be postponed, and apparently vaccine hesitancy is to blame.
Over the past few days, the unvaccinated have been widely denounced by politicians and the media as ‘refuseniks’ who ‘threaten our freedom’, and as ‘selfish idiots’ who are ‘holding the country hostage’. Libertarian Tories and lockdown fanatics are united in their contempt for the vaccine dodgers. One usually liberal LBC presenter suggested she would be tempted to ‘poison their coffee’.
The notion that Something Must Be Done about vaccine hesitancy took off after an outbreak of the Indian Covid variant in Bolton. Health secretary Matt Hancock noted that the majority of those hospitalised had been eligible for vaccination but had not taken up the offer. The most important takeaway from this should have been that the vaccines we are rolling out are effective against the Indian variant – despite a great deal of scaremongering about this strain potentially resisting the vaccines. But instead, Hancock’s observation has been used to talk up the threat of vaccine hesitancy.
But there is simply no evidence that vaccine hesitancy is a major problem in the UK. Polling suggests that the UK has the highest willingness to take the vaccine in the whole world: 90 per cent have either had it or would have it, according to YouGov. This is an astonishingly high figure. Just before the first vaccines were approved in the UK, in November 2020, the British Academy and the Royal Society feared that 36 per cent of the population were uncertain about the vaccine – enough to undermine the fight against Covid. A YouGov survey from November 2020 found a similar proportion of people said they were either unlikely to take the vaccine or didn’t know. But the evidence today is clear and unambiguous: those reservations have been overcome.
Those fretting over vaccine hesitancy have essentially equated two things: people not taking up the vaccine – for whatever reason – and staunch anti-vaxxers. Again, there is no evidence whatsoever that anti-vax views are prevalent enough in the UK to impact on the rollout. The November YouGov survey found that half of those who were uncertain about the vaccine wanted to see if it was safe first. Six months into the rollout it is clear that the vaccines are safe and that most of this uncertainty has been allayed. For all the ranting and raving about ‘selfish refuseniks’, those who oppose the vaccine in principle are a tiny minority even among those who may be unsure or who have yet to take the jab. After word got out in Bolton about the outbreak of the Indian variant, long queues began to form outside the town’s vaccine sites – not exactly a sign of hesitancy.
The panic over vaccine hesitancy is just the latest expression of our establishment’s tendency towards authoritarianism. Officials and the media are far less interested in tackling Covid-19 than in shaming perceived deviants and enforcing draconian measures. Compare, for instance, the press’s demonisation of ‘Covidiots’ in parks and on beaches – which evidence suggests have never been linked to a single Covid outbreak – to their relative silence on the hospitals which released Covid-infected patients into care homes. Vaccine hesitancy may not exist on any large scale, but it does make for a good pretext for more illiberal measures, such as vaccine passports or continued social-distancing rules.
Clearly, the goal posts on vaccine take-up have moved significantly. Last year, the WHO estimated that somewhere between 65 and 70 per cent of people would need to take the vaccine to be certain we could get our old lives back. Back in January, Matt Hancock said that once the most vulnerable had been vaccinated, we could ‘cry freedom’. The most vulnerable have been protected for several months now, and 70 per cent of the UK’s adults have been jabbed. But more hurdles keep getting placed in the way of reopening.
The only refuseniks we should be worried about are the freedom refuseniks, who refuse to open up the country.
Picture by: Getty.