Country must battle ‘dual epidemic of coronavirus and disinformation’

Sir Simon said there is a “pandemic of disinformation” as he was asked about vaccine hesitancy among some ethnic minority groups.

A dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine is prepared, at Copes Pharmacy and Travel Clinic in Streatham, south London.(Yui Mok/PA)
A dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine is prepared, at Copes Pharmacy and Travel Clinic in Streatham, south London.(Yui Mok/PA)

The head of NHS England says “meaningful progress” has been made to overcome vaccine hesitancy, but the country remains in battle against a “pandemic of disinformation”.

Sir Simon Stevens said progress is being made on uptake among black and south Asian communities, and he believes the involvement of local religious leaders will help build momentum in groups with concerns.

But he said the country is up against a “dual epidemic” and must fight both the virus and disinformation with “equal vigour”.

Coronavirus – Mon Feb 15, 2021
Chief executive of the National Health Service in England Sir Simon Stevens (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

He told a Downing Street press conference: “There is a real concern about the hesitancy on the part of some black and South Asian communities to accept the vaccine offer they are receiving, either at work if they are a health or social care worker, or as a member of the public.

“What is happening about that is that there is a huge effort involving community leaders, faith leaders, the way in which the NHS itself is administering the vaccine programme to overcome that.

“Although the start was slower in terms of the uptake in some of those communities, I think we are now seeing meaningful progress.”

Vaccination sites have included mosques and an orthodox Jewish site was delivering jabs up until midnight over the weekend, Sir Simon said.

Organisations such as the NHS Race and Health Observatory have been holding webinars to address hesitancy and encourage people to make reasoned decisions over taking the vaccine, based upon facts from experts.

Sir Simon added: “Part of what we are up against is a dual epidemic – we are up against the pandemic of Covid and we are up against the pandemic of disinformation and the deliberate sowing of mistrust and we have got to fight both with equal vigour.”

England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said many people may not take up an offer immediately, but will do subsequently.

He said: “It’s not a matter of refusal, it’s a matter of thinking about it and then actually moving on to do so.

“All of us think this is critical, to support people to make sure we combat misinformation.”

Prof Whitty said he was meeting medical leaders from different ethnic groups on Monday night “to share experiences and share how we can work out how to make sure people are getting absolutely accurate information that makes clear that the risks of the vaccine are massively lower than the risks of getting this infection”.

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