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The vaccine: just don’t call it ‘world-beating’

10/11/20 . Blog

The news on a possible vaccine for Covid-19 is, of course, to be welcomed. But it’s not the end. It’s not even the beginning of the end.

Assuming a vaccine comes out of the other end of the approval process - not a given - then an arguably bigger challenge begins. Getting a population vaccinated.

Ideally, as well as through NHS Trusts, vaccination should be delivered through fixed mass sites like football grounds, pop-up sites in the high street and directly to places like care homes and prisons. However, given the vaccine needs to be stored at very low temperatures in the sort of freezers only available in healthcare settings, this will make community outreach more difficult. 

Another complication is that the vaccine is delivered in two shots given 21-28 days apart. People will need both. No other vaccine - including the flu vaccine - can be taken in between. Moreover, the vaccine is probably reactogenic meaning that people may feel a little ill afterwards (more than just a sore arm). All this may discourage people from getting the second shot.

The government has already set out its priorities. (It plans to vaccinate health care workers first and then the rest of us by age.) Even in the best case scenario, this roll-out programme is still weeks away so now is the time to build a communications campaign. Just telling everyone to get vaccinated will not work. 

The Forum has already called for intersectional analysis and targeted messaging. Some people are worried (or worse) about vaccines (mostly women). Others don’t think they need bother with vaccines (mostly men). Some people can’t take time off work even if they want to. Many will ask legitimate questions about the efficacy of whatever particular vaccine they’re offered. That doesn’t make then anti-vaxxers. The communications need to be subtler than that.

Obviously, the Forum is not calling for men to be prioritised over women when it comes to vaccination. But, we do think the fact that at any given age, men are twice as likely to die of Covid-19 as women should play a prominent part in the uptake campaign. Working-age men are less likely to get vaccinated for a variety of reasons, some within their control and some without. But understanding their increased risk will surely encourage them. There are other messages around weight, underlying conditions, occupation and, of course, ethnicity too.

So what is communicated needs to be genuinely led by the science; and how it is communicated needs to be genuinely led by an understanding of different communities.

The UK vaccines task-force hasn’t been a communications triumph so far. We know that task-force head Kate Bingham is the wife of the financial secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman MP; that she is director of a private equity firm into which the government has just invested £49 million of public money; and that she has appointed some very well-paid communications consultants rather than use civil servants with public health experience. Cheap shots from a media disaffected by the failures of track and trace, a similarly privatised arrangement? Perhaps.

Let’s hope the comms improve from here on and that the task-force team develop a coherent strategy that talks to all of us built around targeted, sensitive, diverse messaging. All will be forgiven then. We wish them well. 

Please just don’t call it ‘world-beating’.

Jim Pollard,

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