Thousands of anti-lockdown protesters marched in London on Saturday, hurling bottles at police officers and heckling passersby in masks. Those on the march included Laurence Fox, the 42-year-old actor turned mayoral candidate and Piers Corbyn, the 74-year-old brother of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
But a startling number of young people were among those setting off smoke flares and waving “No to Vaccine Passports” signs – an age group that experts warn are still being missed out in the drive to promote vaccine uptake.
More than half of the UK’s population has received a first COVID-19 vaccine. The milestone of giving out over 33 million jabs in under five months is “an astonishing achievement,” NHS bosses said. Britain is also on track to offer a vaccine to all over-18s by the end of July, according to Matt Hancock, the health secretary.
But making the offer is just one piece of the puzzle – the invitation to receive the jab needs to be accepted too. Uptake among older people has been high, with 95 percent of over-50s in England now vaccinated. When younger people are offered a jab, a different picture could emerge.
Findings suggest young adults are more likely to be hesitant about having a vaccine than any other age group. One in eight 16- to 29-year-olds reported vaccine hesitancy in the most recent Office for National Statistics survey, while almost a third of young people told researchers at University College London and the London School of Economics they have doubts about taking the vaccine.
Young people not considered clinically vulnerable cannot yet book a jab, but too little is being done to ensure high uptake among under-30s when the offer comes, experts warn.
“We know older people are more likely to take up the vaccination,” Susan Michie, a UCL professor of health psychology and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), says, speaking to VICE in a personal capacity. “The argument for the need to persuade younger people is that much greater.”
Could vaccine status checks at pubs and clubs nudge young people into getting the jab? Michie suspects not: “I expect vaccine passports will be perceived as another government-imposed control and may even have a negative effect on complying with government requests such as to be vaccinated.”
Promoting the vaccine to young people is not about taking a “this is what you should do” approach, Helen Bedford, a professor of children’s health at the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, argues. A frank two-way dialogue and developing trust is crucial, and it should have been done nine months ago, she says.
“I’m not aware of any specific campaigns currently to reach out to younger age groups,” Bedford says. “It’s important this happens and is focused on public health messaging that addresses questions and concerns openly, fully and honestly. This includes what we know, what we don’t know, and how we will find out the as yet unknown answers.”
Other experts are concerned young people are getting a message, but that it is the wrong one. Ivo Vlaev, a professor of behavioural science at the University of Warwick’s Warwick Business School who advises the NHS as part of its COVID-19 Behaviour Change Unit, says: “At the moment, the message young people are getting is that you are not important, you’re not at risk and you’re not a danger to others, which is not true.”
Vlaev worries the uncertainty of not having clarity on when under-30s will be vaccinated could cause “psychological paralysis” and leave them unsure about what to do when the offer of a jab arrives. “Clear communication now would make young people feel safe,” he says. “My concern is that when the message shows up, they could put off booking a vaccine.”
He also believes communication is not yet being delivered by “the right messenger”, and suggests that “evidenced-based messages from influencers” to champion the vaccine are vitally important.
Michie agrees and says people are “influenced by those they respect”. She suggests vaccine communications could be shared by those young people know and look up to, including musicians such as Stormzy, footballers like Marcus Rashford and young MPs like Zarah Sultana.
The government says vaccines are “the way out of this pandemic” and have already saved thousands of lives. On Monday, a splashy advertising campaign launched on TV, social media and billboards encouraging under-50s to get the vaccine.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson says: “The government and the NHS are providing advice and information about COVID-19 vaccines to all age groups and working closely with local leaders to encourage people in all communities to come forward and get a jab when the offer comes. To increase take-up in groups that prove more hesitant we launched a vaccine uptake plan through which we are working closely with directors of public health, local authorities, charities and faith leaders to boost uptake.
“The rollout has shown how vital clear public information and advice is for groups of all ages, and we have already sponsored content in hundreds of community newspapers, radio and TV channels, as well as producing films and interviews for a wide range of social media channels with leading clinicians to answer questions about the vaccine.”
What remains essential is understanding exactly what is causing some young people to say they are unlikely to get a vaccine. Listening to what is fuelling genuine concerns is “absolutely fundamental”, Bedford says. Only then can a helpful two-way dialogue that could strengthen confidence in the jabs begin. She says: “We’ve got to work hard to regain young people’s trust.”