When the head of NHS England, Sir Simon Stevens, appeared alongside Boris Johnson at a Downing Street press conference last week, he made a startling claim that there is a “pandemic of disinformation and the deliberate sowing of mistrust” surrounding the Covid vaccine rollout.
He made the assertion after earlier telling the briefing: “There is a real concern about the hesitancy on the part of some black and South Asian communities to accept the vaccine offer they are receiving, either at work if they are a health or social care worker, or as a member of the public.”
While Sir Simon said huge efforts were under way to overcome that and “meaningful progress” was now being made, his comments came in the wake of other concerning data – including Office for National Statistics research which found less than half (49 per cent) of Black or Black British adults reporting that they were likely to have the vaccine compared to 85 per cent of those from white backgrounds and 80 per cent of those of mixed ethnicity.
That followed a separate poll conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health which suggested that only 57 per cent of respondents from minority ethnic groups were likely to accept a Covid vaccine, compared to 79 per cent of white respondents.
Considerable efforts are being made in Yorkshire to address these issues, but those on the frontline say the reasons behind any reluctance are altogether more complex than just being down to online disinformation.
Heather Nelson, from the Leeds-based Black Health Initiative and a board member of the NHS Race and Health Observatory, has been involved in putting on local and national webinars allowing people to put their concerns to medical experts and hear the facts surrounding the rollout.
She says there needs to be a better understanding of exactly why many people are hesitant to get a jab. “For me, we need to change the narrative,” she says. “We are constantly putting blame onto South Asian and Black communities for low uptake of vaccinations. What the NHS needs to look at is the mistrust these communities have had for decades. That has never been worked on in the past. What Covid has done is expose the mistrust. What needs to happen and what has started to happen is to give information to these communities so they can make an informed choice.
“It is not about pressurising them, it is about giving them the facts so they can make their own informed choices. You can set up vaccination centres in community centres and places of worship but if you don’t do the ground- work first, people won’t come through the door.”
Nelson cites historical scandals such as the infamous Tuskegee Study which began in 1930s America and lasted for 40 years until it was uncovered. Hundreds of African-American men were told they were getting free medical care for ‘bad blood’ but instead were left with deliberately untreated syphilis so researchers could study how the disease progressed. This continued even after it was known that penicillin could cure the disease and by the time the study was exposed in 1972, 28 men had died of syphilis, and 100 others were dead of related complications, while dozens of their wives were infected.
She says another key issue is frequently-experienced racial health disparities in this country.
“Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age but mammograms are still set for the age of 50,” she explains. “It is missing the black women who should be able to get them. With prostate cancer, black men are likely to get it from 40 and white men from 60-plus. When black men were asking to get tested, they were being told by GPs, you are too young. You could go on about the health disparities that have bred the mistrust. That in itself accounts for some of the reluctance to vaccinations.”
Those views are shared by the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies. In a paper published in January on vaccine uptake, SAGE said: “Trust is particularly important for black communities that have low trust in healthcare organisations and research findings due to historical issues of unethical healthcare research.
“Trust is also undermined by structural and institutional racism and discrimination. Minority ethnic groups have historically been a under-represented within health research, including vaccines trials, which can influence trust in a particular vaccine being perceived as appropriate and safe, and concerns that immunisation research is not ethnically heterogenous.”
As part of Nelson’s attempts to redress the balance, the Black Health Initiative arranged a webinar earlier this month involving local GPs which was attended by 100 people on Zoom and had 75 more wanting to participate.
“We had credible voices giving factual information and responding to the misinformation that is already out there.
“Many from the black communities are not saying ‘No’, they are saying ‘No, we want more information’ and rightfully so. Since we had our webinar, we know of two people who have gone for Covid vaccines. That is two more than would have done otherwise. They went away with more information which was food for thought. It is an ongoing process. We hope they talk to family and friends and it is a ripple effect.”
She also participated in a national webinar organised by the NHS Race and Observatory Board, which had almost 900 people in attendance.
At that event, her fellow board member and chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said anti-vaxxers had been “so quick” to play on fears and suspicions in spreading myths around the vaccines and that it is up to clinical leaders to address them.
She said: “Some of the ones that I’ve seen are actually doctors coming out and saying that they’ve got to protect us from taking this vaccine, from this huge experiment.
“So I’m not surprised that we feel a deep level of mistrust but actually one of the things that we need to be doing as clinical leaders is getting out there and busting those myths.”
She said it is not about dismissing people’s thoughts or beliefs but instead to “engage in a conversation that explores that and providing the evidence to combat some of those misconceptions”.
Nelson says: “Misinformation is coming from lots of different areas and lots of different platforms. It is then shared amongst people - it isn’t coming from one single place.”
Another person involved in trying to encourage vaccine uptake in Yorkshire, is Dr Manoj Joshi, past district governor of Rotary for Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire.
Joshi, a retired pharmacist from Bradford, is passionate about the life-saving power of vaccination programmes having been involved for decades in Rotary International’s efforts to rid the world of polio.
That programme has proved a major success and almost eliminated wild polio from the world - but as with Covid has not been without controversy.
In Pakistan in 2019, a federal government campaign to vaccinate more than 40 million children under five had to be temporarily suspended following a series of fatal attacks on health workers and police officers. Dozens of polio workers and police officers guarding them have been killed in the country since 2012 by militants, including the Pakistan Taliban, who oppose the vaccinations.
Joshi says: “We have the evidence of the polio vaccine which is a success story. But there has been an issue of misinformation about all these medicines.
“When Covid first started, the question was how are we going to get this over with? The answer was the vaccine. Some people are trying to make mischief with the information they are putting out there. The crucial thing to remember is how many people have died from Covid from BAME communities.
Joshi himself has his first Covid vaccination in December, receiving a Pfizer jab.
“I’m sure I was one of the first to be vaccinated. It was emotional for me. Vaccination campaigns have been in my DNA for a long time. I know how many lives they have saved. My mother was a victim of smallpox in the early 1920s. She survived it but suffered.”
Joshi helped found an organisation called the Volunteering Interfaith Partnership at the onset of Covid-19 pandemic to help support vulnerable people and the group recently produced a video encouraging people in different communities to get a vaccine which was shown on the BBC’s Sunday Politics show.
The video includes Dr Avni Vyas addressing myths such as the claims that the vaccines contain alcohol and meat or can alter your DNA and Dr Sharif Kaf Al-Ghazal, president of the British Muslim Medical Association, talking about his own experiences of taking the vaccine.
Joshi has also appeared on Radio Leeds and in local newspapers as part of the campaign.
He says he believes the tide is gradually turning and that while no vaccine can be guaranteed to be 100 per cent free of side effects, people understand it is the way out of the pandemic and the good far outweighs any potential risks.
“There is no medicine that is 100 per cent, even penicillin can give people a rash or a skin allergy.
“Vaccination is the way back to our normal way of life. I was telling people in the Asian community; you like to go to birthday parties, weddings and gather for burials – if you do not get the vaccine people won’t be able to do that. The uptake of vaccination in BAME communities is increasing compared to where it started.
“There were people saying they didn’t want to it but they have now seen the evidence.”
As part of the confidence-building process, NHS worker Ali Aslam has joined the drive to encourage members of Leeds’ diverse communities to come forward and have their vaccine when invited to do so after seeing his mum get protected.
Aslam who works for the NHS, has issued the plea after his mum, Safoora received her vaccination at the end of January at her local vaccination clinic run by GPs in Leeds. Mrs Aslam, who is 65, is registered as clinically extremely vulnerable so is in one of the groups currently being invited for vaccinations.
He says: “I am extremely relieved and happy that my mum has received her vaccination for Covid-19. She is clinically extremely vulnerable and has been shielding since the start of the pandemic so it’s great to know she should soon be protected from the effects of the virus. We would like to give our thanks to Team Leeds for working so hard to make this happen.
“I would like to encourage all of our Leeds residents who have been invited to receive the vaccine to take up that offer, especially fellow residents from ethnically diverse backgrounds.”
Dr Jason Broch, GP and Clinical Chair for NHS Leeds Clinical Commissioning Group, says: “It is great to see Ali and his mum encouraging others to get their Covid-19 vaccination.
“We know that some people from BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities have been more hesitant about taking up their invite for a vaccination and there has been a lot of misinformation on the vaccines, which has understandably caused concerns.
“However, we want to assure everybody that the vaccines are safe. They’ve been through the same safety process that all vaccines have to go through and this has shown they are safe and highly effective at protecting people from all ethnic backgrounds against the effects of Covid-19.”
Rotarians involved in different elements of Covid response
Manoj Joshi says he and his fellow Rotarians have been working hard to support all aspects of the Covid response.
“Rotarians in Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire raised and distributed over £100,000 in the region including personal protective equipment for GP practices, hospices, and to food banks,” explains Joshi about the work of the humanitarian organisation in this region.
“In terms of vaccination support, Rotarians throughout Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire have been volunteering at various vaccination centres even in this bitterly cold and freezing conditions.
“Rotarians are ‘People of Action’ who freely give ‘Service Above Self’ every hour everywhere all over the world.”
Support The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today. Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you’ll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers. Click here to subscribe.