THE UK GOVERNMENT should work urgently with employers, schools and local communities in England to ensure more equal access to and uptake of vaccines, spreading the opportunity of better health more broadly across the population this winter, says a new report from IPPR.
Ministers should also set up a permanent Whitehall unit to monitor and counter online health disinformation as it arises, and to step in immediately in the event of another public health emergency similar to the Covid-19 crisis, the report says.
Taken together, these and other straightforward measures would help drive up overall vaccination rates across the UK – at a time when ill-health and fears over health safety are contributing to fewer people being able or willing to go out to work. This would benefit individuals, the NHS as it faces this winter’s ‘flu crisis, and business and the economy more generally.
The report challenges the idea that vaccine uptake is about individual choice as implied by ideas like ‘vaccine hesitancy’. Instead, policy should focus on removing structural barriers to equitable access by ensuring time off work for vaccination, readier access to high quality health information and greater health literacy among disadvantaged communities.
Newly published polling by YouGov, commissioned by IPPR and conducted in England, Wales and Scotland, found that nearly one in five adults (18 per cent) still don’t feel safe in public spaces, such as restaurants or public transport, with those not in work a third less likely to feel safe. As well as impacting their wellbeing, this is likely to be a factor in the growing level of economic inactivity among working-age adults, currently at a six-year high.
Meanwhile, despite strong continuing uptake by most people offered Covid-19 boosters, a significant minority still face barriers to equal vaccine access and uptake. The polling found 23 per cent of adults reported they were unlikely to get a winter flu vaccine if invited.
Those in lower income occupations – more likely to work in front-line service roles in extensive contact with other people – are even less inclined to do so (27 per cent, compared to 20 per cent in higher income occupations). The same group are more likely to trust low quality information sources like chat rooms and forums (19 per cent to 12 per cent). This suggests vaccine inequality should be viewed as an injustice, rather than simply treated as a matter of individual choice.
Likewise, new analysis by IPPR found that every single nationally offered childhood immunisation has seen a decline in uptake over the past year in England – raising questions about how to engage more effectively with school pupils and their parents.
To tackle this inequality, a new IPPR report, Vacci-Nation: a case study in health and prosperity, urges steps by the UK government to embed higher trust in vaccines and enable greater access, including:
- Encourage employers to enhance vaccine accessibility for their staff through workplace vaccination schemes, and enshrine a legal right to time off for vaccination and sick pay in the event of side effects – to allay fears of losing income after a jab. The current voluntary approach is not being adopted consistently, the report says.
- Permanently re-instate the ‘Community Champions’ programme, deployed during the pandemic, to support wider vaccine uptake. IPPR recommends an expanded £400 million, locally led effort across all local authorities, covering all vaccines.
- Improve engagement with school pupils and their parents, using moments of routine vaccination at school as a springboard to discuss vaccines, address misconceptions and fears and build longer-term trust in them. The report urges an expansion of school nurse numbers to at least one for every 600 children.
- Set up a permanent health disinformation unit aimed at young people, jointly run by DCMS and DHSC, to lead a ‘national vaccine conversation’ and deploy new technologies to combat the spread of misinformation. The new unit would also devise new ways to reach online communities with accurate information supporting vaccinations.
Efua Poku-Amanfo, IPPR researcher and lead author of the report, said: ‘’Vaccines are recognised as one of the most effective and cost-efficient health interventions ever created and save millions of lives every year, with over 100,000 deaths in the UK prevented by the Covid-19 vaccine in its first nine months.
“We must continue to harness vaccine’s preventative potential in UK health policy, but their benefits are at risk due to vaccine inequality. People on low incomes or from marginalised backgrounds are more likely to face barriers to taking up vaccinations. The government must learn the lessons from the pandemic and focus on structural solutions to tackle vaccine inequality.”
Chris Thomas, IPPR principal research fellow, said: “Vaccines have huge health and prosperity potential. But to unleash that, the government needs to think differently about vaccine policy. Individualising and moralising concepts like ‘hesitancy’ misunderstand that the barriers to vaccine equality are structural, social and economic.
“To this end, we call on ministers to work with others to remove barriers to vaccine equality. They should work with employers and business to help people get to vaccine appointments, and take sick leave for symptoms. They should work with schools and the NHS to build trust among young people. And they should actively seek and take down sources of harmful disinformation online.
“Covid showed the value of vaccines – now it’s time to put those lessons into practice and deliver better health and lives for all.”
* Read: Vacci-nation: A case study in health and prosperity here.
* Source: Institute for Public Policy Research