Vaccine hesitancy remains extremely low in the UK, despite concerns over hospitalised patients in some areas who have not taken the Covid-19 jab, No 10 has said.
In a sign that the UK government could be preparing ground for its roadmap to slip, Downing Street would not commit to meeting its deadline of the end of the month for reappraising advice on the 1-metre rule for social distancing in hospitality, or for giving couples who plan to marry in June or July 28 days’ notice about whether the celebrations can go ahead.
“The variant first identified in India could pose serious disruption to this progress, and could make it more difficult to move to step four,” the spokesperson said.
“We’re taking action now to clamp down. Our decision will be based on the very latest data, and we want to allow as much time as possible to assess this so we will set out plans as soon as the data allows.”
No 10 said it had deployed thousands of additional vaccine doses to areas that had reported a sharp rise in the number of cases due to new variants originally detected in India, saying action would be taken to tackle spiralling cases.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said on Sunday that out of the 18 patients in hospital in Bolton, one of the hotspots for the virus, five had been vaccinated. Of the remainder, he said “the vast majority” had been eligible for the vaccine but had not taken it so far.
Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said there were no plans to offer new incentives for vaccinations but that the government was still co-ordinating significant outreach efforts in different communities to encourage people to receive the vaccine.
“It’s really important when we’re talking about hesitancy to highlight the fact that we have one of the most enthusiastic populations for vaccine uptake in the world and that is only increased as we’ve progressed on the rollout,” he said.
“We’re not complacent and there are a number of different approaches we’re taking with vaccine-hesitant groups to engage in social media with community leaders, directly you know, using trusted voices and clinical voices, and that work continues.”
The spokesperson said work to engage with different communities had been successful so far. “We know there is continually more work to do,” he said.
“We have deployed thousands of additional doses to the areas involved so they can do this work of getting vaccines to people.”
No 10’s comments on vaccine hesitancy came after politicians called on the government to change its narrative following insinuations that the spread of the India variant in some northern towns had been due to vaccine hesitancy among some communities.
Yasmin Qureshi, the Labour MP for Bolton South East, said the issue in the town was “incredibly complex” and it was “wrong” to suggest people from minority ethnic backgrounds were to blame for the increased cases of the B.1.617.2 variant first detected in India.
Qureshi claimed there had been issues with the vaccine programme in her constituency, something which she had raised with board members of the Bolton clinical commissioning group (CCG), NHS England and the local authority in February.
She wrote to the CCG and also held two meetings with some of the board members after she became concerned that people in certain wards in her constituency were finding it difficult to access the vaccine.
Qureshi said she did not know the ethnicity of those who had been taken to hospital and it would be wrong to jump to conclusions, but she had raised concerns about vaccine rollout in certain pockets of the Greater Manchester town months ago.
She added: “I refuse to believe that the uptake in the BAME community was less because they voluntarily chose not to go. There might be the odd person, but I know that 99.9% of people in these communities are now happy to be vaccinated. And now they have made the facilities more available in the community they are being vaccinated. It was a case of people getting lost in the system.”
The government is likely to come under uncomfortable pressure from Conservative MPs if they perceive that vaccine hesitancy could be an underlying factor in any delay to the lifting of restrictions.
Asked to comment on an unnamed minister who told Politico that “the risk is that a small number of idiots ruin it for everyone else”, No 10 said the government wanted to make it easy for all those who had questions about the vaccination to get answers.
It said rates of uptake were “only increasing as we have progressed throughout our vaccination programme … That’s been one of the reasons why we have been able to get so many people vaccinated in a period of time.”
The spokesperson said there were also concerns about the effect of the variant on people who had received a jab but who could still be vulnerable.
“What we would be talking about then is a situation where not just individuals who are vaccine-resistant or vaccine-hesitant or those who have not sought out their first jab might catch coronavirus but those who have had the first dose or those who have had two doses but for whom vaccine efficacy is reduced,” he said.
“That would then lead to increased hospitalisations and put unsustainable pressure on our NHS. That’s the situation we are attempting to avoid here.”
Downing Street also confirmed that the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations could reassess whether to offer the AstraZeneca jab to younger adults in order to speed up the programme.