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UK to begin mass vaccinations but many still have doubts

'Conspiracy beliefs appear to have gone mainstream; they're no longer confined to the fringes.'

Andrew Dunn
2 minute read
A pharmacy technician prepares to store the first delivery of Covid-19 vaccine at Croydon University Hospital in Croydon, England, Dec 5. Photo: AP
A pharmacy technician prepares to store the first delivery of Covid-19 vaccine at Croydon University Hospital in Croydon, England, Dec 5. Photo: AP

Britain begins its mass vaccination programme on Tuesday at dozens of hospitals across the country.

The freezers necessary to keep the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine at its optimum sub-zero temperature are all in place and the vaccines have arrived.

Other countries will soon follow, so governments are going all out to reassure their populations that the vaccines are safe and effective in order to get a critical mass to take the shot.

And yet experts are warning that a sizeable minority of people still believe conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and the new vaccines.

“Conspiracy beliefs appear to have gone mainstream; they’re no longer confined to the fringes,” Daniel Freeman, professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University, told Reuters. “Around a quarter of Britain’s population are entertaining such doubts. Another quarter are consistently thinking in terms of conspiracy beliefs.”

A survey in Britain last month showed that almost two-thirds of people would get vaccinated, but many remain uneasy at the speed companies have developed the vaccines and about possible side effects.

Some also believe internet claims that the whole pandemic was simply fabricated by governments to control people or that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates wants to use vaccines to insert tracking microchips into people. Many also believe that vaccines cause autism.

Experts claim much of the fear around them comes from people not fully understanding how they work.

At recent protests in London, crowds of people chanted slogans against Covid-19 lockdown measures and vaccines.

Leila Hay, a student at a university in the north of England, said she believed a lot of what she read online.

“I was looking at a lot of groups. They were very public and had a lot of followers,” the 19-year-old said. “It makes you really paranoid because you think the system’s against you and the government’s against you. I was constantly preparing for the absolute worst scenario, like a new world order was going to happen.”

Tom Phillips, editor at fact-checking site Full Fact, said rumours and false information during pandemics have been around for centuries.

“The difference now is that technology has enabled rumours to spread quickly and internationally,” he told Reuters. “A whisper can begin in a country one day and be across multiple continents almost immediately.”

Leaders are doing everything they can to convince their populations the rumours are just that – unfounded rumours.

In the US, president-elect Joe Biden is saying he will be vaccinated publicly to demonstrate its safety.

Based on published vaccine trial data from Moderna, the BioNTech-Pfizer partnership and AstraZeneca-Oxford, side effects have not been serious or long lasting.

But conspiracy theorists are unlikely to be convinced given that this is exactly what they expect big pharma companies to say.