Can we inaugurate a Bafta for most patient TV host? The mathematician and science podcaster Prof Hannah Fry needs some reward for Unvaccinated (BBC Two), a documentary that requires a near-saintly level of tolerance just to watch, never mind present.
Fry gathers seven of the roughly 4 million Britons who have chosen not to receive a Covid vaccine, in the hope of better understanding them. The unvaccinated septet convene in one of those cosily appointed houses TV producers feel obliged to hire when their documentary might become a reality-TV event – although since nobody actually moves in, the only consequence of this is that Fry has a series of debates in rooms that look poorly ventilated, which makes her brave physically as well as intellectually.
Anyway, the prof kicks off by referencing a survey conducted for the programme, which has found that a surprisingly high number of vaccine refuseniks fear minor side-effects such as a headache or a sore arm. Fry has a bit worked out about “no-cebos” – that if you go for an injection expecting an adverse reaction, it might cause you to believe you’re suffering from one afterwards, thus inflating the relevant figures. In trials, people who don’t know they have been given a dummy jab regularly insist they have the side-effects.
Before Fry has finished, Vicky, 43, from Cambridge – who bills herself as “strongly opinionated” – steams in, loudly observing that heart inflammation is a side-effect of the Covid jab that can’t be faked; that this is her main concern, which means headaches are “irrelevant”; and that, in any case, sometimes people really do have headaches, don’t they?
In the past two and half years, we have all come across a Vicky, online if not in person, but it feels tremendously awkward to watch the normal protocols of friendly, rational BBC science programming being shattered; Fry looks shocked that someone would just ride roughshod over an argument they clearly haven’t understood. One of Vicky’s fellow panellists, Chanelle, feels moved to intervene on Fry’s behalf.
For the prof’s next set piece, she puts 20 jelly beans on the table and invites the participants to tuck in. Someone gets the one out of the 20 that is sour and unpleasant. Unlucky! Then Fry says that to simulate the chances of getting myocarditis – that is, the heart inflammation Vicky was worried about – from a Covid jab, you would need 33,000 beans on the table. Vicky says the illustration is “frustrating”, claims “thousands” of people have died from or been injured by Covid jabs, and storms out.
As the programme goes on, it becomes a useful compendium of infuriatingly common misunderstandings. Pfizer’s published list of potential or rare side-effects has been mistaken for a list of symptoms commonly experienced; the practice of constantly re-trialling vaccines, because they are constantly being refined, has been mistaken for a situation where the public are subjected to experimental, untested medicines. Fry also has a bash at explaining correlation without causation: that person you read about online who developed a serious health condition the day after the jab doesn’t constitute strong evidence that the jab is unsafe.
Eventually, this mythbusting starts to hit home. Unvaccinated is not, however, a one-way process of rationality gamely chipping away at hard dogma. As we learn more about the various types of sceptic in the group, we can sympathise with where their beliefs have come from, even if the views themselves are wacky. Luca, for example, a man who lives alone and spends a lot of time on Facebook, may be very wrong to think Covid vaccines have microchips in them that will kill you once your local 5G transmitter is switched on, but his starting point is disgust at big pharma’s profit motive, which is a lot less wrong.
The trickiest customer is Chanelle, who bridled at Vicky’s inability to keep an open mind. Pregnant at 38, Chanelle is smart, articulate and, as a black woman with a keen knowledge of her community’s history, alive to the fact that the medical establishment has not served people like her well. I confess I still didn’t understand why she wasn’t swayed by statistics on the dangers to a baby of Covid infection, lined up against the minuscule risk from the vaccine – that being one of many scenes where there sadly isn’t time to properly interrogate a participant’s viewpoint – but she is hard to dismiss.
Two months after their original, intense week together, Fry is reunited with the seven volunteers at a vaccination centre, where she asks each of them if they will now go for a jab. This does not go well. But in the prof’s gently expert hands, the naysayers have been guided – slowly, painfully – a little closer to the light.