Since the vaccine rollout began last year, the journey has been relatively smooth. The few bumps that the jab juggernaut has encountered, mostly hiccups in the supply chain, have been successfully navigated.
Yet there are now concerns about the final stages, with under-30s showing markedly more reluctance to get their first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines than older people.
So far, 58.4% of 18- to 24-year-olds and 58.9% of 25- to 29-year-olds in England have received a first dose since they became eligible on 18 June according to Public Health England, but that number is now rising slowly enough to alarm NHS trusts.
The latest NHS figures, from 18 July, show that 131,150 people aged 18 to 24 had a first dose that week – barely a third of the 416,434 two weeks earlier. Cities are seeing a slower take-up, with a little more than half of that age group receiving a first dose, and the clinical commissioning groups in Birmingham and Solihull, Leicester city, Liverpool and Manchester have had less than 50% take-up.
Many under-30s appear to have understood the message that the virus is most deadly for over-50s to mean that young people are unlikely to be harmed, which they feel is confirmed by the government’s actions.
The ending of restrictions on “freedom day” saw nightclubs reopen after midnight last Sunday to great fanfare, only for Boris Johnson to suggest less than 24 hours later that clubbers might need Covid passports in future. The move, some government sources claimed, was “a ruse to increase vaccine uptake among younger people”.
With case rates rising dramatically for people in their 20s – about one in 100 currently has a seven-day Covid infection, according to Public Health England – it should be no surprise that many of those who remain hesitant about the vaccines believe that ministers do not think it matters if they catch the virus.
“We’re reopening the economy when young people generally haven’t had the vaccine and the implication is that it’s fine if they get Covid,” said Evie Aspinall, the head UK delegate to the G7 Youth Summit and a former president of Cambridge University Students’ Union. “They’re telling us there’s no sense of real threat.”
The Observer interviewed several 20-somethings who had not yet been vaccinated, and many spoke of anxieties about their health, scepticism about the vaccines and social media scares – as well as a general lack of motivation. “When the government was saying that old people and people with underlying health conditions need the vaccine, I was all for it,” said Mahmud Iqbal, a 26-year-old computer engineer and barber from Tufnell Park, north London.
“But then the agenda flipped. The age groups were getting lower and my family started asking me if I was going to take the vaccine.” Having recovered from Covid last year, Iqbal questioned why he needed the jab and spoke of fears about side-effects.
Kevin, a 24-year-old painter and decorator, said he “didn’t get it for ages” because he was lazy. “I never book GPs or anything until it’s an emergency. But I didn’t realise you can just walk in, so I’ll potentially go now.” Kevin said he found it “unsettling” that he was being asked to take what he described as “an experimental vaccine”. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency authorised the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines after reviewing clinical trial data, and more than 20 million doses of each have been administered.
“I probably will get the vaccine, though, just so I’m less likely to be able to pass it on to vulnerable people,” he said.
Georgia, 28, from the West Midlands said fertility was her chief concern. “I’ve read about a lot of adverse reactions to the vaccine too which puts me off – effects on women’s reproductive systems and cycles. I want to have a baby in the next year and there’s no published data on its long-term effects on fertility. “I just don’t understand why I really need it, I’m healthy and I trust my immune system over the government.”
Sam Everington, a GP in east London who sits on the British Medical Association council, said that more needed to be done to counter misinformation. “It is difficult, but we need to carry on challenging stuff on social media that is just not true,” he said. “The commonest thing I hear is young people talking about infertility, and there is just no evidence of that.”
He said ministers needed to “stop the mixed-messaging”. “The use of ‘freedom day’ was completely mistaken, because we are going to have to live with Covid. I would much rather use the words ‘next step’. In our local hospitals, a lot of patients now admitted with Covid have not had the vaccination, and they are a younger group. Younger people might think they are immune from Covid or might only get a minor illness, but that’s not true.”
An NHS spokesperson said: “There has been lots of enthusiasm for the vaccine from young people with two-thirds of those aged 18-29 having already had their first dose just a few weeks after becoming eligible, and thousands more continuing to come forward to get vaccinated in convenient places like the walk-in clinic at Ascot Racecourse and vaccine bus at Latitude festival this weekend.
“If you haven’t already got your vaccine, there has never been a more important time to come forward – it is quick, effective and lifesaving.”