Dr Lisa Cameron MP
Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Health
Head of Health at Policy Connect
The COVID-19 vaccination programme provides important policy lessons about how to promote vaccine uptake and reduce inequalities in access.
The COVID-19 vaccination programme – the first ever to vaccinate the entire adult population of the UK – may be the start of a new era of how we regard vaccines as a public health tool. However, policy makers need to learn the correct lessons from the successes and challenges encountered in COVID-19, particularly around how to maximise uptake, reduce misinformation and promote confidence in vaccines as a standard public health measure.
For some workers, the Government has found it appropriate to mandate vaccines: care home staff already need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to continue working, this will also apply to NHS staff from April 2022. Other measures including restrictions on travel and company policies may also act as indirect vaccination mandates for some occupations.
An initial assessment suggests that creating financial consequences for those who refuse vaccination has the benefit of increasing uptake, but can also embed opposition and does nothing to address underlying vaccine suspicions and hesitancy.
Improving health literacy over time needs more than one-off public health campaigns: the evidence is clear that in many communities, their impact is minimal and short-lived.
Sustained programme of education
While mandating vaccination may be needed in a crisis, an overall lesson is that there should be a sustained programme of education about vaccines to promote uptake. Improving health literacy over time needs more than one-off public health campaigns: the evidence is clear that in many communities, their impact is minimal and short-lived.
Health information about vaccinations has to contend with misinformation that is hard to track and counter. If uptake is to be increased against a background of conspiracy theory and mistrust, policy makers do need to be honest about the potential downsides (side effects) as well as benefits of vaccines and to develop risk language that can be understood. Furthermore, information must be personalised for the communities and individuals in an evolving landscape of anti-vaccination messaging.
The accessibility of vaccines, and trust in who is delivering them, is another important factor. COVID-19 demonstrated that vaccine uptake is improved when delivered by a trusted source and in a local setting. The engagement of local leaders, industry, volunteers and doctors – all of whom are more trusted than national figures – in messaging and vaccine delivery has proved a key factor in increasing confidence.None of this can be done without directing effort and money towards the right part of the public health system. This will benefit the NHS and the economy through increased vaccination uptake and improved public health.