Government ministers should stop politicising the Covid-19 vaccine by boasting about being the first to license it, the head of a leading research group has said.
Heidi Larson, the director of the London-based Vaccine Confidence Project (VCP), said the government should instead focus on building support for the jab or it will lose the confidence and trust of the British people.
“I don’t think it is in the interest of the government to be racing along without building the ground,” Larson said. “Unfortunately it feels like announcements are made more politically.
“The message – ‘We are the first ones in the world to get there’ – may be a message to other countries but that does not matter if you don’t have your public behind you.”
Larson, an anthropologist, said she did not think the British public were overtly against taking a Covid vaccine but, having announced the licensing of one, ministers needed to explain “what it will look like between now and April”.
“[We need] the longer term plan rather than bit-by-bit headline news. Telling the full story will be important.”
The VCP was developed in response to hesitancy and misinformation about vaccination programmes, such as those that caused a boycott of polio eradication efforts in northern Nigeria in 2003–04.
Larson pointed out that while the UK had approval for emergency use of the vaccine, more regulation was needed before mass immunisation was possible. Only a small number of people were likely to be vaccinated in January, she said, and the plan beyond that “needs to be carefully” thought out.
There was a need to get out into communities, “hearing them, engaging with them and building that ground before vaccines are widely given. If we don’t do that it risks being a problem.”
Survey work done by the VCP about people’s feelings towards a vaccine was “a wakeup call to the public health community … we have some work to do to build confidence”, she said. But if the vaccine was delivered in the right way it could be a “huge opportunity” to build confidence in inoculation more broadly.
Larson said the UK was only at the beginning of the process of learning about the Covid vaccines. “We should make that as much a public-wide journey as possible and bring people along together, rather than deciding which bits of information are given from time to time.”
She noted there were logistical challenges around delivering mass vaccinations. She said: “Particularly the Pfizer one needs extremely cold refrigeration and the handling of it is not overcomeable but will require extraordinary logistical support and training up of those who will be handling it.”
Healthcare professionals also needed to be brought onboard, not just in terms of taking the vaccine but answering questions from members of the public.
Larson said all vaccines underwent extensive scrutiny and progress would be monitored “to make sure that people are safe”.
“No company or government has any interest in putting out a vaccine that is not safe enough. That is bad for business, bad for government and bad for the public. The public need to remember that, even if they hate big business, they have no interest in putting out a vaccine that will ruin their reputation. And no government wants to put something out to harm the voting public. I think there are some highly distrusting people who just distrust as the default.”
She said her message to government was to get out into, and listen to, communities, and use “every moment we have before we are ready to go widely with the vaccine”. And she warned against waiting and getting “lost in statistics”.
In terms of mandatory vaccination, Larson said she could not see the government adopting this approach, but proof of vaccination could be required for travelling to some places. “Certain countries, for example, now require you to get yellow fever vaccinations or they don’t let you into the country, some countries may add Covid to that.”