By Anissa Alifandi, Corporate Communications Manager at the British Science Association

Last week, it was announced that another effective COVID-19 vaccine is likely to be available in the coming months, according to promising early data from the Oxford University/AstraZeneca collaboration (hot on the heels of announcements from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna). This might just be what the UK needs to hear. A Christmas miracle, or rather, an exceptional scientific achievement under the most unique circumstances in modern times.

Stock markets responded quickly, and the mood of the nation seemingly followed. The roadmap out of the pandemic, and not just the current lockdown restrictions in England, appeared less distant as Government ministers started to discuss the rollout and industries commenced preparations to welcome back the public.

But while some are relieved, not all are. Results from a YouGov poll published two weeks ago revealed that one in five people are unlikely to voluntarily get the vaccine*. I employed my own sophisticated polling software (Instagram) to test this with a somewhat less representative group of twenty-somethings, and over a quarter responded “no”. Not exactly poles apart (excuse the pun). Being conscious of the proximity to Christmas and thirst for normality, I naïvely assumed the majority would welcome such developments.

Image courtesy of YouGov

*It could be that as the number of effective vaccines increases opinions change to reflect this.

Why then, has news of the vaccine raised more questions than it has answered?

  • What is in the vaccine and is it safe? Will it affect my DNA?
  • Are Governments using the vaccine to keep track of me?
  • Will the vaccine be compulsory?

These are just some of the concerns being voiced. Of those who responded to the YouGov poll stating they’d be unlikely to take the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, around half say it is because they have concerns over safety. This is undoubtedly one of the biggest worries and understandably so. The successful development of a range of vaccines (along with pioneering technologies which have already changed the course of future vaccine development) is a mind-blowing achievement; one that seemed implausible this time last year. Though this is a big “win” for research and development, there is still a significant population who need to be reassured. This could be a huge undertaking, requiring the expertise of communicators, trusted authoritative voices and national education campaigns. However, bearing in mind the damage already caused, this work might just be a public health necessity.

Differences in knowledge, and understanding of vaccines generally, also impact public perception. Communicating what is quite complex information isn't easy, which makes it all the more important for Governments to get it right. This is explored in a report by the Royal Society in which one of the simplest, yet probably most effective, recommendations is a transparent dialogue with the public. By using language that is comprehensible and speaking to communities via media they can, and want to, engage with (enabling a two-way conversation, and not only from behind a lectern) Government leaders can gain public trust. Trust in their advice, recommendations and procedures, which will be key in delivering a successful vaccination programme and bringing the pandemic to an end.

Despite living in the age of the internet, misinformation and disinformation persist unregulated and opinions are broadcasted as loudly as proven facts. A friend of mine said that she simply didn’t know which news to trust, and it's not for a lack of wanting to know, nor her ability to understand (I’m biased but she is very intelligent). Being from near Manchester, an area subjected to some of the strictest lockdown restrictions, she hasn’t come across any clarification or advice in the local media in response to the official announcements. The real-life implications of this however are most evident when talking about not seeing her young niece, who she is particularly close with:

Because I feel like I'm at a point where I'm so confused about the risks and there's been such mixed messages [...] I'd rather just stay away. I don't feel like I can make a logical or even rational decision on it because I just don't know, or understand, enough.

Since March, the nation has watched the news with bated breath as ever-changing rules and restrictions are enforced. This confusion coupled with several misunderstandings and often badly explained reasoning has only worsened the ‘information overload’. With the news set to be inundated with reports of emergency vaccine approvals, the amount of information that is not necessarily easy to process will increase. Fears about safety are also unlikely to be resolved, particularly when the term “emergency use” is adopted.

Even once the pandemic is over, how will we address the glaring inequalities brought to light by this disease? A recent Channel 4 documentary asked, “Is COVID racist?” looking deeper into the disproportionally negative impact of COVID-19 on Black and Asian communities and those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. As well as devastating deaths, the economic fallout will continue to permeate the lives of many Brits in years to come which has since been reflected in the Chancellor’s spending review. In order to really move on and protect against future events like this, the Government’s pledge to “level-up” the UK needs to be prioritised in the recovery.

While the work of research teams worldwide is being lauded (and rightly so), we must also be aware of the issues that cannot be solved with medical advancements. There are communities feeling overlooked, people who maintain a sense of confusion, economic anxiety, and mistrust in those handling the pandemic. Trusted voices could be employed to deliver reliable news and this is something the Government seem to be working towards by prioritising their own social and digital capabilities. Tackling the existing inequalities highlighted by COVID-19 is a lengthier process but not an impossible feat – a wealth of reports and recommendations (including this one from Public Health England) exist to guide this work.

Effective vaccines allow us to clear one hurdle in the race to end the pandemic. There are many more to jump over in years to follow.