Ministers are looking to local authorities to boost Covid-19 vaccination rates among black, Asian and minority ethnic Britons, reflecting growing concern that the UK programme is failing to reach many of those worst affected by the disease.
A key committee of cabinet ministers is due to discuss how to improve vaccine take up among “hard to reach” communities, including Bame Britons.
Almost 6.6m people have received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in the UK, according to the latest official data, but there is concern in government that some of the communities most vulnerable to the disease are reluctant to get the jab.
In previous national vaccination programmes in the UK, reported uptake has been significantly lower in areas with a higher proportion of minority ethnic Britons.
The ministry of housing, communities and local government is expected shortly to write to council and public health leaders in England, giving them an explicit responsibility to reach out to Bame communities and others who may be more hesitant to have a vaccine jab.
The letter, a draft of which has been seen by the Financial Times, said: “As local authorities, you are best placed to make decisions about what is required to achieve high vaccine uptake in your area, and we want to ensure your expertise on local population’s health is harnessed.”
It added: “At a local level, you have the expertise and connections to liaise with local institutions and communities and co-design vaccine uptake approaches with disproportionately impacted and underserved groups.”
On Monday the government announced £23m of funding targeted at areas in England with plans to address hard to reach groups, including those from minority ethnic backgrounds, noting that according to the latest evidence they were more likely to suffer poor health outcomes from Covid-19.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons liaison committee on January 13, Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, volunteered that the vaccine programme could only reach everyone through the “NHS working hand in glove with local government” and emphasised the importance of public health leaders having the right data to monitor uptake.
The following day public health directors who work for councils were told by the government they would be receiving information relating to “daily and cumulative total vaccination events by first and second dose and by the higher risk cohorts for your local authority area”, according to a communication shared with the FT.
But public health leaders said they still lacked sufficient data from NHS England to work out which groups of people were being left out of the vaccine programme.
One said: “We’re not getting the granular ‘uptake’ data yet which would help us address vaccine hesitancy and inequalities.”
An NHS spokesperson said: “The NHS shared data on vaccination uptake with local authorities two weeks ago and with the quality of data improving all the time we will look to make more available once verified.”
Teresa O'Neill, leader of Bexley council, said her local authority had been pressing NHS London for more data.
She added: “We want to help speedy delivery to our residents and we can do that by knowing if there is enough vaccine in the right place, if there are particular parts of our communities not looking to be vaccinated or indeed if parts of our boroughs aren’t getting vaccinated.”
The draft letter from the housing ministry noted “ongoing work” between the NHS and Local Government Association “to improve data granularity and access” for public health directors.
While in some areas, such as Greater Manchester, NHS and local government leaders are working in tandem on the vaccination programme, elsewhere the relationship is less constructive, according to people on the frontline.
Whitehall officials denied this, with one saying the relationship was strong, involving regular dialogue between the NHS and local authorities.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said the Department of Health and the NHS were “working closely with Bame communities to support those eligible for a vaccine”.
Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, expressed concern about reports that people from Bame communities were less likely to take the vaccine jab when offered it, despite being more likely to be adversely affected by the virus.
He added: “We’re calling for public health communications to be tailored to patients in black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, where appropriate.”