Vaccines are heading to the UK. But will everyone want them?

The gov’t has attempted to assuage concerns, but is ramping up efforts amid fears of a backlash from so-called anti-vaxxers.

A youngster carries a shopping bag on an electric scooter as non-essential shops are allowed to reopen after England's second lockdown ended at midnight, on Oxford Street, in London, December 2, 2020 [Matt Dunham/AP]

London, United Kingdom – Sara Saigol, a 48-year-old doctor, has lost two members of her family to COVID-19.

For her, there is no question – when the vaccine is made available, she will line up to have it.

“One was a fit and healthy 37-year-old,” she told Al Jazeera. “Not being able to breathe is a horrific way to die.”

On Wednesday, the UK became the first country to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for widespread use. It will be rolled out through the National Health Service (NHS) as early as next week; the elderly, residential care home workers, and front-line health and social care workers will be given the drug first.

But with misinformation swirling around online about 5G mobile networks fuelling the virus, claims of vaccine trial volunteers dying after taking the jabs, and conspiracy theories that people will be microchipped as they accept shots, the government now faces the challenging task of battling vaccine hesitancy.

There is also some scepticism over the swift procurement of the vaccine.

According to the London-based Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), social media companies allow the so-called “anti-vax” movement to spread lies on their platforms.

Since last year, the CCDH says, anti-vaxxers on social media have increased their followings by about eight million people.

Unlike Saigol, 32-year-old journalist Safeera Sarjoo is in two-minds.

“I live with my parents and grandmother who are high-risk individuals so on the face of it, it makes sense to it if it means that I won’t be a risk to them”, she said.

“But I am sceptical at the speed at which it’s been developed and rolled out. I don’t feel very informed about it and the risks associated.

“It feels like it’s more of a race to who can get it out, and who can lay claim to developing a vaccine. I don’t want to be collateral damage over what feels like a competition.”

People take part in a coronavirus anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine, anti-5G and pro-freedom protest near Scotland Yard, the headquarters of London’s Metropolitan Police Service, in London, Saturday, May 2, 2020 [Matt Dunham/AP]

Last month, a YouGov survey for the Mile End Institute, Queen Mary University of London, asked more than 1,000 Londoners how likely or unlikely they were to take the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Thirty-nine per cent of ethnic minority respondents said they were likely to have the vaccination, compared with 70 percent of white people. Thirty-seven percent of ethnic minority respondents said they were unlikely to take it, compared with 17 percent of white respondents.

The UK government has access to 357 million doses of vaccines from seven different developers.

But some Britons are concerned over the varying levels of efficacy.

Barrister Zaiban Alam said she would be at the “front of the queue demanding” the vaccine for her and her family.

However, Alam added she was afraid of the risk to her elderly parents, who are from a South Asian background, a community hit particularly hard by the pandemic, if they received the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine.

That drug can protect 70.4 percent of people from becoming ill, and up to 90 percent if a lower first dose is used.

“My dad is very old, fragile and vulnerable. There is no margin for error,” she said.

People take part in a ‘Resist and Act for Freedom’ protest against a mandatory coronavirus vaccine, wearing masks, social distancing and a second lockdown, in Trafalgar Square, London [File: Matt Dunham/AP]

Another survey last month by the Vaccine Confidence Project (VCP), a research group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, tested how receptive people were to misinformation.

The poll, which surveyed 4,000 people, found 54 percent in the UK would “definitely” accept a COVID-19 vaccine. After exposure to misinformation, the number fell by 6.4 percent.

Professor Heidi Larson, who runs the VCP, said more communication campaigns were needed before the vaccine arrives.

“There should be more local community conversations, especially in communities [and] groups who were most affected by COVID-19, to listen to and hear concerns before the vaccine arrives so healthcare professionals have time to prepare some answers to questions they will surely get when it is time to vaccinate,” she told Al Jazeera.

‘Never-ending’ restrictions

Black and Asian people in the UK are twice as likely to become infected compared with white people, while at least 60 percent of UK healthcare workers who have died from COVID-19 have been from ethnic minority backgrounds.

When he saw a call-out in June for ethnic minorities to sign up for vaccine trials with the US-based biotechnology firm Novavax, in Leeds, 27-year-old property consultant Haaris Ahmed signed up.

He received his first dose on October 14, and a booster jab on November 4.

He later developed a fever, flu symptoms, soreness in his arm where he had been injected, and swollen lymph nodes, but tested negative for coronavirus when he went under full observation.

“Like everyone, I’m fed up with restrictions that have been never-ending,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that a successful vaccine or vaccines will be the way that we get out of this crisis and go back to normal.

Haaris Ahmed, a volunteer for a vaccine trial, has faith that the UK will get back to normal with the help of drugs [Courtesy: Haaris Ahmed]

“That’s paired with the trust that they’re not trying to inject nanobots inside me, or that Bill Gates is secretly trying to sterilise me, according to [conspiracy] theories out there.”

The vaccine trials have so far shown immunisations are effective in preventing illness. But more research is needed to determine if they prevent someone being contagious and spreading the virus.

The government has attempted to assuage any concerns over the vaccine, but is ramping up efforts amid fears of a backlash from the anti-vaxxers.

During the pandemic, thousands have marched against the government, calling the pandemic a hoax and decrying lockdown measures as a threat to their personal freedoms.

On Sunday, The Guardian reported that the NHS was planning to enlist celebrities and “influencers” with significant numbers of social media followers to convince people to have a vaccine.

On Thursday, a day after the UK announced the landmark decision over the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, health minister Matt Hancock said he would be vaccinated on live TV to prove the drug is safe, the UK’s Times newspaper reported.

Source: Al Jazeera