On this my hundredth diary entry, I begin with a correction. On August 7, I wrote: “It is generally accepted that the only way of ending the pandemic is the discovery of a vaccine and its manufacture and distribution on a global scale by multi-national drug companies.” A day later, a study conducted by King’s College London and Ipsos Mori reported that only 53% of the British population was definitely or very likely to accept being vaccinated, whilst one in six said they would definitely be very unlikely to go ahead with such a treatment.
This finding is in fact very similar to a survey I discussed on July 6, based that time on a YouGov poll.
At face, the finding is deeply depressing. It suggests one of two things. Either the community spirit that has carried us through is decaying just when it matters. The widely-observed initial lockdown depended on an act of collective altruism. Those unlikely to suffer greatly from an infection controlled their social lives on behalf of the elderly, and those with co-morbidities, who were much more vulnerable. In the new study the young (16-24 and 25-34 year-olds) are twice as likely to refuse a vaccine as the old (55-75).
Or the proportion of the population prepared to disregard medical advice is much larger than we supposed. It is not so much a matter of disputing a particular scientific finding. There will always be argument about which remedy is most appropriate, even amongst researchers themselves. Rather we are faced with a Trumpian disdain for science altogether as a mode of advancing the truth. It is a wholesale rejection of the Enlightenment project, the notion that the natural world could be progressively understood through evidence-based rational discourse.
There is, however, a caution against despair. The opinion poll surveys are asking a hypothetical question. There is no vaccine, merely encouraging reports of several clinical trials. Conversely there are any number of bogus cures being widely discussed in books and online forums. John Naughton in his Observer column on Sunday column traced in convincing detail how the algorithms on sites such as Amazon are promoting anti-vax literature with little to counter it.
As and when the vaccine is found, manufactured, and distributed to doctors’ surgeries, then the whole debate will shift. Governments will stop issuing vaguely optimistic promises and get behind a determined programme of mass vaccination. If it is seen to work not just in random trials but in real populations, the proportion of refuseniks will surely shrink to a marginal though possibly damaging fringe (at least in the UK; all bets are off in the States, whoever wins the presidential election).
It may be that the poll findings are not so much a cause as a reflection of a collapsed optimism. I have been writing entries every weekday for nearly five months. During that time public spirit has made a transition from panic contained by collective endeavour to weary disillusion with every aspect of the official effort. We come to the end of the first period of the pandemic with the highest per capital death toll in Europe and the deepest projected economic recession. Whether it is a second phase or a renewed surge, there appears no end in sight to the level of infections, which in England climbed back over a thousand at the weekend. No-one believes the assurances of any part of government, from face-masks to care homes to test and trace to reopening schools. Dominic Cummings’ Flight to Durham in late March and subsequent non-apology in the Downing Street garden is held to mark the turning point in public confidence. He’s still inside Number 10. It will take a real vaccine, actually and widely available, before spirits change.
But by that time, we will be in the throes of Brexit.
Enjoy the rest of your summer. I’m taking a break.