Covid vaccine hesitancy among Britain’s under-30s alarms ministers

Covid-19 vaccines updates

“There’s just this sentiment of ‘oh well, I’m well and fit and healthy, so why would I need to take the jab?’” said 27-year-old Pablo O’Hana, as he explained why some of his peers were hesitant about having the Covid-19 vaccine. 

It is this sort of mindset that is giving the UK government a headache. After opening up vaccinations to all over-18s in mid-June, the number of unvaccinated young people has caused alarm among ministers.

Addressing the issue took on greater urgency after Prime Minister Boris Johnson removed the remaining coronavirus restrictions on July 19, while infection rates were still rising.

The question of whether or not to get inoculated had become “divisive” among his friendship group, said Manchester-based O’Hana, who works in public relations. “I just assumed everyone I know would get it, but that’s not been the case.”

O’Hana is an outlier for his age because he is already fully vaccinated. He managed to get his first injection in May — weeks before his age group became eligible — after spotting on social media that a vaccination centre had spare doses and was offering them to anyone.

Pablo O’Hana, 27, says some of his peers don’t feel the need to get vaccinated because they are ‘fit and healthy’ © Pablo O’Hana

According to NHS England data up to July 22, only 66 per cent — or 5.6m — of 18 to 29-year-olds in England have had their first jab, compared with 88 per cent of the whole adult population.

Office for National Statistics research found that between 7 and 10 per cent of adults under 30 have expressed hesitancy about having a jab, compared with 4 per cent for the entire adult population.

Some within the scientific community have argued that the public health messaging throughout much of the pandemic, which emphasised the risks of the virus to elderly and vulnerable rather than younger groups, has led to complacency.

“I think there is probably a false sense of security . . . but we know that infection in the younger age groups is quite rampant,” said Professor Lawrence Young, an infectious diseases expert at Warwick Medical School.

The seven-day infection rate among 20 to 29-year-olds stands at 1,154.7 per 100,000, the highest figure among any age group in England and the highest figure since mass testing began. Doctors warned last week that Covid-19 patients in their twenties and thirties were increasingly ending up in intensive care units.

“I don’t think I know anybody who believes they are invincible [to the virus],” said 23-year-old Alex Prior, who has just finished a masters in television journalism in London. “Among my immediate group of friends, we were all pretty confident in the vaccine and keen to get jabbed.”

He was one of the thousands of young people who travelled to Twickenham rugby stadium in London on May 31 to get their first jab early, after the organisers of the mass vaccination event opened it up to anyone over 18 to avoid wasting any doses.

But he said some people were reluctant. “I know someone my age who didn’t get round to booking an appointment and only got his first dose after one of his family members said ‘let’s just get it over and done with’ and got him down to a walk-in. So, maybe what young people need is just that nudge.” 

Alex Prior at Twickenham rugby stadium in London
Alex Prior, 23, went to Twickenham rugby stadium in London to get his first jab in May © Alex Prior

Ministers have admitted that the announcement by the PM last week that he was considering vaccine passports for nightclubs and other mass attendance events was ostensibly just such a nudge, aimed at the estimated 3m unvaccinated adults under 30. 

The move was inspired by Emmanuel Macron, after the French president’s recent announcement that proof of a jab would be needed to go to cafés or restaurants led to a surge in vaccination bookings in France.

Reports over the weekend suggested Downing Street was continuing this approach, with stories appearing in various media outlets that vaccine passports would be needed to attend Premier League football matches — and even university.

Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said that overall vaccine uptake rates among the young were “relatively high”. He also stressed the importance of acknowledging the toll the pandemic had taken on them.

But Harnden added that he supported the move to introduce vaccine passports to ensure that as many people as possible were protected.

“In order to improve uptake among the younger cohorts, we need to make sure that vaccines are as accessible as possible, communicate the benefits of vaccines clearly and make use of policy measures such as vaccine passports for things like overseas travel,” he told the Financial Times. 

“For many unvaccinated [people], the prospect of not being able to travel without quarantine will also help focus the mind, so to speak, and encourage people to get that first dose.”

This sentiment rings true for Prior, who said that among his friends the need to produce a vaccine passport to travel to many countries had proved to be an “incentive” for some to try to get their second jab before the recommended eight-week gap between doses.

Tasnim Jara
Dr Tasnim Jara, 26, is part of a group of medical professionals who use social media to debunk Covid-19 disinformation © Tasnim Jara

Harnden said it was vital that the government employed similar methods to those used to boost vaccine uptake among ethnic minority groups, such as featuring young celebrities in campaigns and targeted messaging on social media.

Tasnim Jara, 26, an accident and emergency doctor, is part of Team Halo, a group of medical professionals who use social media to debunk Covid-19 disinformation. She stressed the importance of not judging younger generations and taking the time to fully understand their concerns.

Jara, who has amassed 2.1m followers across her platforms, said one common theme among her younger audience was the question of vaccine safety.

“They would have heard the reports about the risk of blood clots and the risk of heart inflammation, which are actually extremely rare occurrences but unfortunately haven’t always been reported with proper context in the media. So, for them the calculation is: ‘I won’t be very ill with the virus if I catch it, but I might get really ill if I take the vaccine’.”

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