It is not every day that opponents in Britain’s parliament recognise common cause. But growing evidence of a slow take-up of the Covid-19 vaccination programme in parts of the black and south Asian communities has spurred rival politicians to launch a joint campaign.
Last week black MPs from the governing Conservative and opposition Labour parties appeared together in a video endorsing the vaccines. On Sunday, Nadhim Zahawi, the minister in charge of vaccine deployment, co-authored an article with London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, in an effort to reassure groups resisting the jab about its safety.
Public health experts and community leaders have been warning for months that ethnic minority groups, already found to be more at risk from coronavirus, are more likely to shun the injection that offers them protection from developing potentially deadly Covid-19. Misinformation and mistrust threatened to undermine what has been one of the most successful vaccine rollouts in the world so far, they said.
The worry is that “those at highest risk of adverse outcomes and therefore with most to gain from having a vaccine, are those who are less keen to come forward and that this will deepen the mortality inequalities seen in the pandemic”, one London doctor, who wished to remain anonymous, said.
The threat to black and south Asian people from Covid-19 was clear from the first wave of the pandemic, when official statistics showed they were more than twice as likely to die from the virus as white people.
Yet a survey carried out for the NHS of those aged over 80, who were prioritised for vaccination from the outset, found take up was slow among the ethnic groups most at risk. The study published last week by the Nuffield Trust and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that 42.5 per cent of elderly white people had been vaccinated compared with between 27 and 29.5 per cent of mixed, other and south Asian ethnicities in the same age group and just 20.5 per cent of black people.
Nims Obunge, pastor at the Freedom’s Ark Church in Tottenham, north London, and one of a growing number of faith leaders who have stepped in to support local authorities to try to turn the tide, said confidence building was key and efforts should have begun sooner.
“You needed to build that reassurance from the onset. We are playing catch-up now,” he said, adding: “There needs to be a national campaign, a regional campaign, local campaigns . . . because people are very wary.”
The reasons for this so-called vaccine scepticism vary between different demographics but there are common threads, with misinformation one of the key issues.
“The first that all communities share, is the incredible amount of fabrication and lies that are being shared online whether by anti-vaxxers or by people who are sceptical due to reasons that seem valid until they are easily explained,” said Mohammed Mahmoud, senior imam at the East London mosque in the borough of Tower Hamlets, where a more infectious mutation of the virus has been wreaking havoc.
False claims that the vaccines use embryonic foetuses or that they contain pork have also contributed to religious reservations, he said. “These worries are quite easily dispelled by religious scholars like myself,” Mr Mahmoud said, cautioning however that more entrenched health inequalities brought into focus by the pandemic “cannot be solved overnight”.
“This leads to distrust in authorities and in establishment figures,” said Mr Mahmoud.
For this reason, said Qari Asim, senior imam at the Makkah mosque in Leeds, it was vital for community leaders like himself to be involved in building trust. Many mosques, like his, have now offered to host inoculations. “The messenger is as important as the message in this campaign,” Mr Asim said.
More specific to worries within the Afro-Caribbean community are past stories of black people being used in clinical trials without proper consent, an issue brought to the fore last year in a clip that went viral of a French scientist suggesting Africa as the best place to carry out vaccine trials.
“That is still there in people’s minds,” said Patrick Vernon, a social commentator who is on the board of the Hertfordshire NHS trust. But like Mr Mahmoud he said such fears fed into broader concerns within the black community about entrenched disparities in healthcare outcomes.
A report published in November called Black People, Racism and Human Rights led by the joint parliamentary committee on human rights, cited research that found more than 60 per cent of black people within the UK did not believe their health was as “equally protected by the NHS” as the health of white people.
The government sought to address the challenge last week when it announced £23m in additional funding week to boost vaccine take-up among ethnic minorities through a so-called “community champions scheme”.
“We are working closely with the NHS and black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities to support people eligible for a vaccine and this includes using community champions who can answer questions and dispel myths about Covid-19 vaccines.” Mr Zahawi told the Financial Times.
Kamlesh Khunti, professor of primary care diabetes and vascular medicine at the University of Leicester and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies that advises the government, welcomed the additional funding but said it was insufficient.
Speaking in a personal capacity, Dr Khunti stressed the importance of recognising nuances between marginalised groups and of tailoring messaging accordingly.
“We need culturally competent messaging that is constant and coming from the top down — simple non stigmatising messages, in different languages and coming from different angles. These also need to be implemented in the local context,” he said.
Echoing this, Adil Ray, the broadcaster and actor who has also spearheaded a campaign by British Asian celebrities endorsing the vaccine, said much of the media discussion during the pandemic had not been relevant to the British Asian community.
“For a large part of the summer most of the news channels were talking about whether the pubs were closing and whether a scotch egg is a meal,” he said. “It’s not just about the vaccine. When you talk to Britain you have to be aware you are talking to a number of different communities. You can’t do everything but you certainly should be doing some of it,” he said.