Guest blog by Neil Greenberg, Professor of Defence Mental Health, King's College London
There’s no doubt at all that since 1796, when Jenner first introduced a vaccine against smallpox, vaccination has saved countless lives. For me, it’s now almost impossible to imagine not protecting our children against serious childhood illnesses or failing to ensure that we are ‘covered’ by vaccinations when we travel to areas of the world where serious illnesses are endemic.
Ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, discussions of vaccination as the ‘way out’ of the crisis have been commonplace. Understandably, the recent announcement that the US pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, now has a vaccine which may be more than 90% effective has created a torrent of positive political and media headlines. Should the vaccine be as effective as claimed, then it may herald a return to some sense of normality which individuals and businesses should rightly welcome. However, having an effective vaccine cannot make much difference unless people agree to have it; this is especially so for those most at risk including the more elderly or those with significant health complaints. I think there are many reasons to think that a not insubstantial number of people may be hesitant, or indeed actively object, to being vaccinated. Indeed a recent UK survey suggests that more than 1/3 of the UK population may be unlikely to have a vaccine. So what factors might affect people’s willing need to be vaccinated and what role might employers play in informing employee’s decision.
Experts tell us that there are five key factors which strongly influence people’s views on vaccination. Firstly, many of us may have a degree of complacency about the need for a vaccine. It’s not surprising that a relatively fit employee in their fifties, lucky enough not to know anyone who has died or been hospitalised by COVID, might see a vaccine as being reasonably unimportant for them. Our work on risk perception in the military has also shown that troops who survive a six month tour in Iraq tend to think they are invincible and so it follows that higher risk staff who have survived working in higher threat roles to date may also think similarly.
Secondly, given the understandable lack of long term data on the vaccine, many may not trust it will work very well or that it is safe to take. Thirdly, especially during the early roll out of the vaccine it may be hard to access and the more hoops someone has to jump through to get the vaccine, the less likely they may be to bother to do so. Fourthly, people’s views are likely to be influenced by a range of socio-demographic characteristics including their education, gender, ethnicity, religion and past vaccination behaviours. So for instance, evidence shows that more educated staff are less likely to refuse a vaccine.
Lastly, people’s views may be swayed by various sources of information including the anti-vaxxers who may push out information ranging from the possibly credible to verging on ludicrous. An example of the latter includes a supposed plot by Bill Gates to vaccinate the world’s population as a method of implanting digital microchips to track and control people which has gained considerable support in the US. The vast amount of available information about COVID, and the vaccine, has been termed an infodemic by the World Health Organization and it is perhaps this factor that employers have the most chance to influence. By ensuring that official, reputable information about vaccines are provided to staff, employers may be able to nudge staff’s views about vaccination in the right direction.
As yet, it’s not clear when a COVID vaccine will be widely available. However, given that vaccinated employees should be less likely to become unwell, it is certainly worthwhile employers, ideally informed by high quality occupational health advice, being well informed on this topic. Hopefully by ensuring employees are provided with trusted and reliable information, they will be able to helpfully influence their decision helping protect the individual, their colleagues and their employers.