Why getting vaccinated for Covid-19 is more popular in the UK than in the US
A Covid-19 vaccination center in London. | Dinendra Haria/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty ImagesThe UK has world-leading vaccine enthusiasm. What can the rest of the world learn?
Vaccines are gradually becoming more widely available across the United States. But as the fight to ensure everyone can access them continues, the US is also entering the second phase of its vaccination campaign against Covid-19: the fight against vaccine hesitancy.
About 26 percent of Americans say they won’t take a vaccine, according to an April 21-26 CNN poll. Getting the pandemic under control in the US could be challenging without their buy-in.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom vaccine hesitancy sits much lower; government polling shows it’s around 6 percent. This is not necessarily because the British are inherently more enthusiastic about vaccination. Last summer, a poll found that 75 percent of Americans and 71 percent of British people were open to taking a vaccine if one existed and was recommended by their government.
But in the year since then, vaccine hesitancy in the US has stayed about the same, while vaccine hesitancy in the UK has plummeted to the lowest in the world. The UK has administered 75 doses per 100 people, and 95 percent of people over age 50 have gotten their first vaccine dose. To be clear, the US vaccine effort has been going well, too. But there is growing concern that hesitancy might keep the country from reaching herd immunity and slow progress toward normalcy. The UK, apparently, doesn’t face that same challenge.
All of this raises an urgent question on the vaccine hesitancy front: What is the UK doing right that the US could learn from?
It’s a difficult question to answer definitively. Vaccine hesitancy researchers have conducted lots of polling over the last year, but polling is much better at answering the question of what people believe, rather than why they believe it. A few factors make the vaccine rollout in the UK different from every other vaccine rollout in the world, from the country’s national health care system to its policy of delayed second doses to its information ecosystem. Those differences could help explain how the UK has been able to curb vaccine hesitancy.
Researchers I spoke to emphasized that all of their theories about how the UK has kept hesitancy low were very much speculative and not yet backed up by solid evidence. But those theories are still worth considering as the US tries to convince more Americans to get vaccinated.
The UK’s restrained reaction to bad news about the vaccines
One of the tactics that distinguishes the UK from the US, and much of the world, is its approach to regulation and public communication in response to bad news about the vaccines. It’s an approach that could well have helped develop greater public trust in the vaccines.
“In the UK, the medical communication has been pretty excellent,” David Comerford, an economist at the University of Stirling’s Behavioural Science Centre in the UK who researches vaccine hesitancy, told me. He focused particularly on how UK authorities reacted to and communicated about rare complications involving the vaccines that came out in news reports.
As millions of people have been vaccinated against Covid-19, some rare side effects have cropped up. The Johnson & Johnson and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines appear to, in extremely rare circumstances, cause an unusual kind of blood clotting.
In the US, the FDA and CDC immediately paused distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. After the announcement, public confidence in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine fell immediately, and the pause coincided with a peak in daily vaccinations in the US. Vaccinations have been falling ever since then, across all age groups. (It’s not clear how much the slowdown in the overall vaccination rate is related to the pause or news of rare side effects; experts expected a drop for all vaccines around this time as supply began to outstrip demand.)
The EU’s response was similar to the US’s — it paused the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. And, as with the US, that move coincided with confidence in the vaccine plummeting.
By contrast, the UK did not pause the vaccine. Instead, the National Health Service (NHS) updated its vaccine guidelines to recommend that people under 30 or with a predisposition to blood clots get the Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines instead, and to advise people on what symptoms to watch for.
Researchers at the University of Stirling found that despite pervasive news coverage of the blood clots, vaccine hesitancy in the UK did not change at all. That’s in distinct contrast to the EU, where it rose; in the U.S., polls have differed.
“The US did a U-turn, suspending delivery of the J&J vaccine,” Comerford told me. (The US has resumed delivery of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine since we spoke.) “Several EU countries did two U-turns, suspending delivery of the AZ vaccine and then, a few days later, resuming delivery of it. The
May 6, 2021 - VOX
A Covid-19 vaccination center in London. | Dinendra Haria/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty ImagesThe UK has world-leading vaccine enthusiasm. What can the rest of the world learn? Vaccines are gradually becoming more widely available across the United States. But as the fight to ensure everyone can access them continues, the US is also entering the second phase of its vaccination campaign against Covid-19: the fight against vaccine hesitancy. About 26 percent of Americans say they won’t take a..