When the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out was in it’s initial stages back in January 2021, the term ‘vaccine hesitancy’ was being thrown about with concern. After all, stark figures from ethnic minority communities revealed a reluctance to get the Covid-19 jab. Of course, this was for various reasons, from genuine concerns towards the vaccine to being swayed by anti-vaxx material on social media. On the whole though, vaccine take-up in the UK has been very encouraging so with more than 90% of people saying they are keen to get jabbed- unlike in some parts of Europe.
However, the recent news over blood-clots and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine may have stirred concerns in people who had them previously quelled. The issue affects under-30s in particular, with the age group now being offered alternative vaccines for their protection- namely the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. As a young journalist who has been following the vaccine roll-out in the UK while keenly reporting on issues surrounding it, yesterday's developments interested me as well as slightly worrying me too. In particular, what happens now in terms of getting the right information into the public eye in a responsible way.
It's important to look at the potential impact the recent turn of events could have on vaccine uptake in younger age groups. After all, vaccine hesitancy has been highlighted as an issue here before- with an ONS report indicating that around 1 in 6 (17%) adults aged 16 to 29 years reported vaccine hesitancy; this was the highest of all age groups. Therefore it’s clear that this isn’t a new issue, but something which has been bubbling for a while. We don’t know how these figures will demonstrate in real life as the vaccine hasn’t been fully rolled out to these age groups yet. We also don’t know how yesterday’s news will affect these figures yet as it’s too early to make any conclusions. However, what we do know is that this statistic is out there and yesterday’s news has the potential to affect vaccine uptake within these age-groups, especially those who are on the fence about it.
You may be wondering, why are young people showing signs of hesitancy in the first place? There are many, but the one very obvious reason I want to mention is the impact of social media, which still bubbles with anti-vaxx propaganda to this day. Young people are more reliant on social media as opposed to their older counterparts, especially for keeping up with the news. One source I spoke to for a feature I worked on about this very issue told me that they rely on the likes of Snapchat and Instagram for their Covid-19 related news. Another problem that ties into this is the mistrust of the government. A study in June 2020 has shown that 18-25 year olds are “less likely to have confidence in political institutions and leaders and harbour more negative attitudes towards elections.” Therefore, when they see the government saying one thing about vaccines and someone with a large following on Instagram saying another, they feel conflicted. I’m not saying this off the top of my head- this is what young people, particularly college students, have told me.
The government shouldn’t ignore this. Nor should they be complaining about being ‘blindsided’ by the issue a few months down the line. They need to be three steps ahead. Taking action now can save lives later- a lesson we’ve been brutally reminded of throughout the pandemic. So what should the government be doing? It’s not enough to just ‘debunk myths’ or attack misinformation. Clearly explaining what’s going on, targeted encouragement, encouragement by example are all key.
Don’t just say, “we all need the vaccine.” Make it personal. Speak right to them, not at them.
Responsible reporting is also key- breaking down the facts and figures so we know exactly what’s going on. We don’t need to sensationalise headlines and scare people off when the numbers currently suggest otherwise- this plays a role in whether people take up the vaccine or not. The words BLOOD CLOT and VACCINE in scary colours are more likely to put someone off going to their appointment. Contextualise it in a way that people in my generation can relate to. You’re more likely to get a blood clot from the contraceptive pill or contract Covid-19 than getting a blood clot from the vaccine. Of course, the risk is still there, but it's about weighing up how big or small the risks are compared to the biggest risk to our health out there- Covid-19.
There’s no doubt that the government needs to emphasise the importance of vaccines a lot more over the coming weeks. The sooner they take targeted action, the better- as we’ve learnt from the past few months. Public health messaging, news reporting and analysis are all going to be tested by this issue- how they react plays a role in determining the reaction.
Zesha Saleem is a freelance journalist and Editor for YouthPolitics UK