In U.K., Concern Grows Over Vaccine Hesitancy Among Minority Groups

LONDON — Health experts, doctors and government officials in Britain are calling for a more concerted campaign to address vaccine hesitancy among minority groups, with some also urging that those groups be designated a priority for immunization against the coronavirus because they are more at risk.

The government said on Monday that it would give 23 million pounds, or about $31 million, to local councils and other groups in England to encourage vaccines among those most at risk from the virus, including minority groups, by trying to combat misinformation and to build trust in the authorities.

The pandemic has already thrown into sharp relief the persistent racial inequalities in Britain, which have played a role in the disproportionately high rates of infection and death among minority groups and, some say, deepened their mistrust of the government.

Recent polls showed that members of Black, Asian and other minority groups in the country are less open to getting the vaccine than white people are because they worry about the vaccine’s reliability. Britain’s drug regulator, seen as a bellwether agency, has said the vaccines are safe and effective.

“I am conscious some Londoners are hesitant to receive the Covid vaccine because they are from communities which have, in the past, been let down by institutions,” Mayor Sadiq Khan of London said. “But these vaccines are safe and effective, and I urge everyone who is invited to receive one to do so.”

The stakes could hardly be higher for countries to address skepticism and anxiety around vaccinations. The British government is banking on a campaign to vaccinate tens of millions of people by April as an escape route from stop-and-start lockdowns and their crippling economic fallout.

Maureen Pryce, a 58-year-old former caregiver of Caribbean descent, said that she had stopped taking vaccinations after one of her daughters suffered a bad reaction to one years ago. Even with family members sickened by the virus and deaths increasing in her neighborhood, her mind was made up, she said.

“I’m not having it. I refuse,” she said this month. “How can we trust you?” she said of the authorities. “You have a history of lying to us.”

There are deeply rooted reasons for a mistrust of health care among minority groups, experts say, with a history of abuse and racism in the medical establishment. For 40 years ending in 1972, doctors intentionally did not treat African-American men infected with syphilis to study the course of the disease. In Nigeria, Pfizer agreed to a $35 million settlement with Kano State after 11 children died in a 1996 trial of an experimental meningitis drug.

And two French doctors spurred an outcry last April when they suggested Covid vaccines should be tested in African countries, where people had less access to personal protective equipment.

As growing numbers of people have received the vaccine without incident, vaccine hesitancy overall appears to be waning in Britain, according to a YouGov poll in January. As of Monday, about 6.5 million in Britain, out of a population of about 67 million, had received a first dose of the vaccine.

But in a survey of 12,035 people commissioned by the government’s scientific advisory group, vaccine hesitancy was higher in Black Britons and in those of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and other ethnic backgrounds.

In the city of Birmingham, for example, one health official said anecdotal evidence suggested that about half of those belonging to minority groups who were invited to receive vaccines were turning them down, according to the BBC.