Prime Minister Boris Johnson admits numbers are ‘appalling’ as country battles more infectious variant of the virus.
Imams across the United Kingdom are helping a drive to dispel coronavirus misinformation, using Friday sermons and their influential standing within Muslim communities to argue that COVID-19 vaccines are safe.
Qari Asim, chairman of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB) which is leading a campaign to reassure its faithful, is among those publicly advocating that the inoculations are compatible with Islamic practices.
“We are confident that the two vaccines that have been used in the UK, Oxford Astra-Zeneca and Pfizer, are permissible from an Islamic perspective,” he told the AFP news agency.
“The hesitancy, the anxiety (and) concern is driven by misinformation, conspiracy theories, fake news and rumours.”
The United Kingdom, the hardest-hit country in Europe by the virus after registering nearly 95,000 deaths, is relying on its biggest-ever vaccination effort to end repeated cycles of lockdowns and restrictions.
However, a report from the scientific committee advising the government showed stronger mistrust of vaccines among ethnic minorities than the rest of the UK population.
It highlighted that 72 percent of Black survey respondents were unlikely or very unlikely to get the vaccine.
Among those from Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds, the figure was 42 percent.
Misinformation around the coronavirus is all the more dangerous given several studies have shown that it can affect minorities disproportionately.
Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from the UK, said it was a growing concern for the British government, who wants to offer a first dose to every adult in the country by September.
“So, those disproportionately at risk of contracting and becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 are among those least likely to be vaccinated,” Barker said.
Imams are pushing back in particular at unfounded fears among the UK’s estimated 2.8 million Muslims that the vaccines contain pork gelatin or alcohol, which are banned by Islam.
“And then there’s other myths being peddled common to all society – like the claim that coronavirus is spread via the 5G network or the vaccine can cause infertility or fundamentally change your DNA,” Imran Kauser from the British Islamic Medical Association told Al Jazeera.
“Of course I’d like to point out that all of these are false … there’s no truth in any of them.”
Nighat Arif, a general practitioner based in Chesham, near London, told AFP: “Ethnic minorities are precisely the communities we should be trying to target.”
When she received her vaccination, she posted a video in Urdu on social media aimed at the language’s speakers living in the UK.
“I’m hoping that because they see someone who looks like them, who is a practising Muslim, wears a hijab, someone who is Asian who speaks their language, that’s more relatable than something that’s coming through from the government,” she added.
Arif is still surprised by the refusal of certain patients to be inoculated, noting they will often get vaccinated to undertake the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia or to visit Pakistan or India.
She blames conspiracy theories spread online, which contribute to the science behind the process “being lost”.
Samara Afzal, 34, a general practitioner at Netherton Health Centre in Dudley in the West Midlands, also shared a video in Urdu with her 35,000 Twitter followers to “debunk some myths”.
She said some people had asked her to send the video directly to them so they could forward it to sceptical loved ones via social tools like WhatsApp.
At her medical centre, Afzal estimates that approximately 40 to 50 people out of 1,000 have refused to be vaccinated when she had expected only one or two.
“It’s still a fair amount of people that are saying no and obviously we haven’t even addressed the younger ones, so this is just the elderly,” she added.
“So I’m sure when it comes down to the younger ones, there’ll be a lot more that say no.”
About five million people, almost entirely the elderly and caregivers, have already received a first dose of the vaccine in the UK, the highest rate in Europe.
In a sign of officials’ concerns about minority take-up of the jabs, the state-run health service is mobilising “influencers” in communities to convince the sceptics.
A vaccination centre has even been set up in a mosque in Birmingham, the UK’s second-biggest city, which has a large South Asian population.
Imam Nuru Mohammed said the move sent “a big ‘no to fake news'” message to his 2,000-strong religious community and beyond.
He shared the video of his own vaccination on social media.
For Asim, the MINAB chairman whose mosque is in Leeds, in northern England, their efforts also help counter far-right claims.
“If there was a lower take-up of vaccines in Muslim communities in comparison to all other communities, then potentially, it could fan the flames of Islamophobia,” he noted.
“And in this pandemic, no one should be scapegoated.”