As the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine continues across the UK, with more than 14m already having had the jab, in communities of colour there remains deep concern over its safety. Polls show that people of colour are around 20 per cent less likely to have a vaccination than the population as a whole.

A new study by public health agencies around the UK found that as many as 71 per cent of black people and 42 per cent of Pakistanis/Bangladeshis expressed hesitancy about getting the jab. This compares with 85 per cent of white British and Irish saying they would be willing to have it. This data is alarming. Covid-19 mortality rates among black and ethnic minority communities in the UK are higher than those of white British people. But the hesitancy reveals persistent fears around government health campaigns that have plagued people of colour for decades.

It would be a mistake to dismiss these fears as simply a product of misinformation and conspiracy theories. To understand them, one must examine the past.

In the 20th century, western countries conducted experiments on black and brown people under the guise of government health programmes. In many cases they were designed to support theories that non-white races were inferior. In Rawalpindi — present-day Pakistan — British army scientists carried out controlled experiments on 20,000 British Indian Army men and women for a decade from the early 1930s, exposing them to mustard gas to see its effects on their skin. Across the Atlantic, the US public health service oversaw a 40-year programme to observe the effects of untreated syphilis on black men in the Tuskegee Experiment, which ended only in 1972.

A doctor draws blood from a man as part of a programme to observe the effects of untreated syphilis on black men in the Tuskegee Experiment, 1950s

The legacy of these grossly unethical experiments is an understandable distrust of health programmes among many people of colour. This must be recognised in conversations around vaccine hesitation.

There are signs that this is happening. Individuals and leaders are organising to encourage people to trust the science. In a new social media campaign black MPs from the Conservative and Labour parties have come together to support taking the vaccine. “We understand the fears, the anxieties and the confusion. We understand the genuine history of mistrust that some black people will rightfully feel,” the MPs say in a video. “Get the facts. Speak with trusted healthcare professionals and encourage your family to do the same.”

At a Downing Street press briefing last month, Dr Vin Diwakar, the NHS regional medical director for London, who is from a south Asian background, also acknowledged the importance of history. “There are longstanding concerns that actually go back generations because of the history and the way people were brought up by their grandparents, who were told by their grandparents that experiments were done in the early part of the last century.”

Dr Diwakar added that having looked at all the research and the processes of the UK’s Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, he is convinced that the vaccines are safe and effective. “We will be absolutely tireless in working with our communities, working with those who’ve got concerns, working with faith leaders, community leaders, colleagues in local government to make sure that we will answer any question that anybody has . . . to encourage people to come forward and take up their appointment,” he said.

Communication and an acknowledgment of the past will be paramount in building trust in health policies. Top medical and government officials must reassure people that the mistakes made in the past will not happen again. If community leaders continue their efforts, there is hope that those who need the jab the most will have a change of heart and put their trust in the science.