The Covid recall campaign has stalled and declining confidence in the Prime Minister is part of the problem, scientists say.
Only 26,875 people in England received a third dose or booster on February 1, the latest full figures available, and 6 million people are at least six weeks late for their injection.
Behavioral scientists, including government advisers, and public health officials say the huge drop in turnout in just one month is fueled by the widely held belief that Boris Johnson flouted his own Covid rules.
Although Omicron is less lethal than previous variants, it remains a significant health risk to the estimated 5.1 million unvaccinated people over the age of 12 in the UK, and the seven-day rolling average of deaths in Britain is over 240.
People with double bites have a significantly lower risk of dying. But they remain more vulnerable to infections that can lead to long-term health problems and be taken to hospital, as well as death, in some cases.
The perception that Omicron is less dangerous is one of the main reasons why only 64.6% of over-12s in England have had their booster, according to behavioral scientists. The winter spike in infections has also had an impact, as people have to wait 28 days after their infection clears before they can be boosted.
“Worry about infection has fallen to 52% of adults,” said John Drury, professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex, referring to ONS data released last week. “You can trace this back to January 27, when the government announced that we didn’t need any action. It communicates something about the risk, that infection is OK because it’s not very strongly associated with death.
The UCL Covid Social Study, which has tracked attitudes towards pandemic measures, published a report last week showing that people who were unvaccinated and double-shot were significantly less worried about catching Covid, become seriously ill, develop a long Covid or possible future variants. But they were more worried than people with triple bites about being asked to get more shots.
“Also, most people who aren’t vaccinated have chosen not to because they lack confidence,” Drury said. “And who trusts this government now?”
Research by Swansea University behavioral scientist Dr Simon Williams has shown holiday scandals created ‘variant fatigue’ with some participants in his December study saying they would ignore the rules at Christmas at because of Downing Street parties.
“Trust in the authorities has been damaged recently,” he said. “One of the predictors of vaccine decisions is trust in authorities – we saw this in a large study in Denmark — and confidence certainly hasn’t improved lately.
He cited opinion polls showing declining confidence, including a YouGov survey in December showing one in 10 people would not follow Covid rules.
Professor Susan Michie, director of the Center for Behavior Change at UCL and a member of the SPI-B group which advises the government group Sage, said: “We know that vaccine hesitancy is often associated with authority who don’t trust. The ‘get boosted’ message was announced by the Prime Minister and recent events have meant that trust in politicians has waned, undermining the ‘get boosted’ message.
The NHS has tried to reverse the decline in the use of reminders by reminding people to come forward. It texted 2.4 million people last week and opened 1,000 walk-in Grab a Jab centres. It also works with employers to vaccinate people in the workplace.
Dr Emily Lawson, immunization program manager at NHS England, said new research from the ONS has shown the risk of death involving Covid was 93 per cent lower for people who received a booster or third dose vaccine compared to unvaccinated people.
She said: ‘It is essential that as soon as you can get the vaccine that you accept the offer and book a guaranteed slot online.
“Although the Omicron variant seems milder, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that Covid is still a very serious disease affecting the lives of thousands of people every day.”
Dr Doug Brown, chief executive of the British Society for Immunology, said: “Three doses of vaccine do not completely stop transmission, but the rate of transmission is halved between people.”
Immunocompromised people, such as cancer and kidney patients, did not respond as well to vaccines as those with healthy immune systems, he added. “By getting your booster, this reduction in transmission really plays an important role not only in protecting us, but also for those who are more clinically vulnerable.
Professor Maggie Rae, chair of the Faculty of Public Health, said: ‘I know people are tired. I know the government wants to move forward. But we can only get by with vaccinated people. We need to establish who hasn’t been vaccinated and how we help them.
Data from the National Immunization Management System shows that as of January 11, 78.7% of people over 18 in the wealthiest areas had received a third dose, compared to 46.9% in the poorest. ONS data shows that 35.9% of pupils eligible for free school meals received a first dose, compared to 58.9% for those not eligible. “It’s heartbreaking to see the discrimination and health inequities among the poorest in our country,” Rae said.
She said ministers must continue to fund the vaccination programme. “I think the Treasury is trying to get back the money they spent during the pandemic and they want to get the Covid response money back. I think it’s fair and appropriate that some of the private sector spending on testing and tracing should come back, as I’m not convinced it’s all been spent effectively. But what I don’t want are further cuts to the public health system.
“The recall campaign was launched at the last minute. Throughout this pandemic, they’ve been three weeks behind every sensible action or decision – the first lockdown was a classic example. The virus has passed them the whole time.
“We need to maintain our momentum as we still have a few months of winter left with all the vulnerabilities that come with that. I am not comfortable that 350 people die every day in our country. I think it’s shocking – absolutely shocking.