More Than a Quarter of British Hesitant About Getting COVID Vaccine, Study Finds

More than a quarter of people in the United Kingdom have said they are unsure or reluctant about getting an approved COVID-19 vaccine, a new study has found.

Researchers at the University of Oxford surveyed a demographically representative sample of 5,114 adults in the U.K. and found that 72 percent of participants were willing to be vaccinated but 16 percent are very unsure about being immunized, and 12 percent are strongly hesitant about it. Authors say the findings, published in the journal Psychological Medicine, show it would be a "mistake" for lawmakers to dismiss vaccine hesitancy.

Following the rollout of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID vaccine in U.K. hospitals, England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said there is no point trying to convince extreme anti-vaxxers to take a COVID-19 jab, but that those people make up "a very small group who has got very weird views about vaccines" rather than a majority of the population.

"In a sense, they're not worth worrying about in public communication terms because nothing will persuade them that this is the right thing to do, and that's their right as competent adults to make those choices," he told a government committee. "There is a lot of people, though, who actually have quite legitimate questions of any vaccine and any medical treatment. Vaccines are no different to that."

Professor Daniel Freeman, from the department of psychiatry at the University of Oxford, who led the study, said: "Strikingly, those who are hesitant are not bringing to mind the benefit to everyone of taking a COVID-19 vaccine. It is often rooted in deeper mistrust, including negative views of doctors, anger at our institutions, and sometimes even outright conspiracy beliefs."

Some people are concerned by the speed at which COVID vaccines have been created and approved by regulators, the study found. It previously took around 10 years to get a vaccine on the market, but COVID treatments were created in less than a year. A key reason for this was the amount of money poured into their development, which meant pharmaceutical companies did not have to deal with the usual financial constraints.

The U.K. was the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer vaccine, followed by Canada where it was described as "safe, effective and of good quality". In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on vaccines has recommended that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine be given an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) that would allow it to be used immediately. The FDA still has to approve the recommendation for the EUA to go into effect, although they are likely to do so.

"Most people can see vaccination as the light at the end of the tunnel, but they are also looking for detailed information on the topic that they can trust," Freeman said. "They want reassurance that the speed of development has not compromised safety. They want thorough information on effectiveness, safety, and how long protection will last."

The researchers found vaccine hesitancy to be higher in younger people, women, and those on lower incomes, but they added these were only very small associations. Factors contributing to hesitancy included being unable to see any collective benefit, concern about side effects, doubts about the effectiveness of vaccines, fear that the speed of development has compromised the safety of the jabs, and seeing themselves as not being at risk of getting a severe disease.

Higher levels of hesitancy were associated with negative views of doctors, bad experiences with Britain's National Health Service (NHS), concerns about the financial motivations of vaccine developers, discontent with institutions, coronavirus conspiracy concerns, and vaccination conspiracy ideas, the researchers said.

Around a quarter of those surveyed believed that the virus was a hoax, with around one in five people thinking vaccine data may be fabricated, the study found.

Margaret Keenan first to get COVID vaccine
Margaret Keenan, 90, is the first patient to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine at University Hospital Coventry in the U.K. Jacob King/Getty

Dr. Sinéad Lambe, another of the study's researchers, said: "It is a mistake to dismiss vaccine hesitancy as unconsidered. Even when skeptical, people have weighed up a number of issues in their decision-making. Understanding their concerns is essential if we are going to provide the right information and necessary assurances to increase public confidence in the new vaccines."

An effective vaccine is seen as the main weapon in fighting the pandemic, which has claimed more than 1.5 million lives worldwide. Pfizer and BioNTech reported final trial results in November that showed its vaccine was 95 percent effective in preventing COVID-19, with no major safety concerns.

Freeman said: "People will avoid getting vaccinated rather than feel like a guinea pig, experimented on by those they view as not caring about them. We need strong messaging that taking a vaccination is actually a duty we need to do for the benefit of everyone."

Dr. Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization's regional director for Europe, has urged the public to go to trustworthy sources for information on vaccines and stressed that national regulatory authorities would thoroughly assess each vaccine candidate for quality, safety and efficacy before approving them.

"Vaccination saves lives, fear endangers them," he told a press briefing.