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Academies call for open dialogue over Covid vaccine deployment


Public expectations must be urgently managed for a longer-term transition period, say academics

There is an urgent need for open dialogue with the general public over the deployment of a Covid-19 vaccine, a report by the Royal Society and the British Academy has warned.

The academics say that public expectations must be “urgently managed” for a longer-term transition period, during which non-pharmaceutical interventions will still need to be in place, such as the use of face coverings and social distancing, even after vaccines are available.

Moreover, they warn that vaccine deployment faces an “infodemic”, where information is mixed with fear and rumour, “with the rise of misinformation that fills knowledge voids under conditions of uncertainty”.

In a report released on 10 November, they call for transparent dialogue and community engagement about vaccine deployment while “respecting emotions and real concerns, as opposed to a one-way information supply”.

“The promise of a vaccine in early or mid-2021 has brought high public expectations,” the report said. “Confusion, anger or distrust may emerge if expectations are not managed in relation to phasing of vaccination delivery and the timing of the vaccination rollout.”

The report comes as new hope has been raised by a press release that reported hugely successful results from a vaccine candidate from Pfizer and BioNTech, claiming efficacy of 90 per cent in preventing Covid-19 in phase 3 interim data.

The announcement prompted John Bell, a professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, to suggest on BBC Radio 4’s World at One on 9 November that life could be returning to normal by spring.

But his comments were downplayed by other experts and prime minister Boris Johnson at his Downing Street press conference the same day.

“We haven’t yet seen the full safety data, and these findings also need to be peer-reviewed,” said Johnson. “So we have cleared one significant hurdle but there are several more to go before we know the vaccine can be used.”

Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the UEA said: “It’s doubtful that even with good take-up of the vaccine we will achieve herd immunity. Even with vaccination we are still likely to see an increase in the number of cases again next winter.”

The report recommends that vaccine deployment should build on existing immunisation programmes via GP surgeries and local authorities, and says that centralised mass sites and roving teams are likely to be less effective.

“Vaccines and vaccination are two very different things. To achieve the estimated 80 per cent uptake of the vaccine required for community protection, we need a serious, well-funded and community-based public engagement strategy,” said the report’s lead author Melinda Mills, director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford.

“There needs to be a frank conversation with the public about just how long it will take, and that things will not immediately go back to normal when vaccines arrive. We must learn from the lessons of history and move away from the one-way provision of information and instead generate an open dialogue that addresses misinformation and does not dismiss people’s real vaccine concerns and hesitancy.”

“And, critically,” she added, “when the time comes, we need to make vaccination itself convenient.”

“This important report brings together key insights from this longstanding body of work,” said Melissa Leach, director of the Institute of Development Studies, who participated in the roundtable that informed the report. “Important insights include that vaccines are social phenomena as much as technical ones, and people will always interpret, accept or worry about them in their social contexts.”

She added: “Vaccine hesitancy is set to be a huge issue for Covid-19; building vaccine confidence is a massive priority, and social science insights are vital to support this.”