From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Concentrating the Mind

Samuel Johnson: “Depend upon it, sir”

February 15.  When the awards are handed out at the end of this pandemic, a gold medal must surely go to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

From the beginning it has been the source of sober, relevant and trustworthy data not just on the progress of the disease but on a wide range of associated behaviours and attitudes. It has published reliable answers to the right questions, including attitudes to vaccination now that the programme has gained real momentum.

It has just issued data relating to the end January. With vaccinations being offered to the top four categories it found that 99% of those aged 70 and over had accepted or would accept a vaccine.* Last autumn, when it was being reported that a sixth of the UK population would certainly refuse and offer, and a similar number might do so, I wrote that “the question constitutes an interesting case history for the capacity of digital communication to shape private behaviour.”** Since then the anti-vax campaign has increased its efforts as the vaccines were given approval, and Facebook continued until the last minute to carry its messages.

The ONS survey suggests that orthodox medicine has won a decisive victory. When the invitations were sent out, the conspiracy theories evaporated. Even amongst those still hesitating, the ONS found that most of the doubts had little or nothing to do with stories in the social media. The lead concerns were anxiety about side and long-term effects, then waiting to see if the vaccines actually worked. Only a small proportion of negative respondents declared an outright opposition to vaccines in general.***

The most obvious reason for the outcome, which is critical to the defeat of the coronavirus, is the difference between a hypothetical and a practical choice. The conspiracy theories promoted by the internet should be divided into two categories.

There are those which reflect a state of mind that need never be tested in the real world, and those which sooner or later will have to be. Views about race, sex and religion, about the unreality of climate change and the reality of extraterrestrial beings, may coalesce into active protest, but there is no requirement, no point at which a behaviour has to occur. Like a flu virus they may just mutate over time. Whereas other beliefs, such as the misbehaviour of elected governments, or the evils of vaccination, will at some point become a formal choice, when the polling cards or the medical invitations arrive. In those circumstances, interim polling of attitudes are contributions to a debate, not predictions of an outcome. Also this week it is reported that the Conservatives have opened up a five point gap over Labour. No-one mistakes this for an accurate description of an election that is still four years away. It just has an impact on current political debate. Similarly the anti-vax findings last year stimulated on-line counter-propaganda by orthodox medicine, which may have helped in the final result.

The choice itself foregrounds practical concerns. Since the early weeks of the pandemic we have been told by the ONS and many other authorities, that the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions stand a far greater chance of becoming seriously ill or dying from Covid-19. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is likely to end up in an intensive care unit, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

It is not surprising, therefore, that the ONS returns for those under 70 currently display a greater resistance to vaccination, though the difference is not large. Of the 3% of 50-69 year-olds who currently are not fully committed, two thirds are just saying they are not certain yet. Amongst 30-49 year-olds, where 89% respond positively, the next largest group is 6% don’t know / won’t say. Except for younger medical workers (where there are worrying accounts of BAME resistance) and a few clinically vulnerable, most of these age groups are still discussing only the possibility of vaccination.

There is also the effect of the group. In my network, the over 70s and the clinically extremely vulnerable, emails and blog posts have been buzzing since the New Year with descriptions of what it was like, accounts of after-effects (usually very minor), and complaints from those who had to attend inconvenient centres or had yet to receive their invitation. It was a party everyone was joining and from which no-one wanted to be excluded. The minority of the young, invited because of their role in health or social care, had less of a sense of what in a related area is termed a herd behaviour.

Alongside the vaccine data, the ONS has also updated its measure of the mood of the nation: “Following a decline in well-being in early January 2021, this week well-being scores for life satisfaction (6.4), happiness (6.4) and feeling that things done in life are worthwhile (7.1) remained at some of the lowest levels recorded since the survey began in March 2020.”****

This reflects my own view. I have been surprised by how small the lift in spirits has been since I drove down to Ludlow racecourse to get my jab at the beginning of the month. Euphoric is not a term I would use. At best mildly relieved, and aware of the road yet to be followed.

*https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddisea ses/articles/coronaviruscovid19weeklyinsights/latesthealthindicatorsinengland5february2021#vacci ne-attitudes

**November 11, 2020.

***https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddis eases/articles/coronaviruscovid19weeklyinsights/latesthealthindicatorsinengland5february2021#vac cine-attitudes

****Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, Great Britain, 27 to 31 January 2021. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandwellbeing /bulletins/coronavirusandthesocialimpactsongreatbritain/5february2021

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