NHS bosses plan to enlist celebrities and “influencers” with big social media followings in a major campaign to persuade people to have a Covid vaccine amid fears of low take-up.
Ministers and NHS England are drawing up a list of “very sensible” famous faces in the hope that their advice to get immunised would be widely trusted, the Guardian has learned.
Health chiefs are particularly worried about the number of people who are still undecided, and about vaccine scepticism among NHS staff. “There will be a big national campaign [to drive take-up],” said one source with knowledge of the plans. “NHS England are looking for famous faces, people who are known and loved. It could be celebrities who are very sensible and have done sensible stuff during the pandemic.”
No names are thought to have been confirmed. But NHS communications experts suggested privately that the footballer Marcus Rashford, who is widely admired for his child food poverty campaign, which has forced two government U-turns, and members of the royal family would be ideal recruits. Politicians will not be used, it is understood.
Expectation is growing that the first of three potentially promising vaccines – Pfizer/BioNTech, of which the UK has secured 40m doses – is set for regulatory approval within days, allowing hospitals to start immunising their frontline health workers as soon as 7 December, as revealed by the Guardian on Friday.
The government has secured 100m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and has asked the regulator to assess it for emergency deployment. A further 2m doses the US Moderna vaccine have also been ordered, bringing its total to 7m for the UK. All three vaccines involve two doses received several weeks apart.
Meanwhile, an internal NHS briefing paper shows that airline cabin crew, firefighters and the jobless are being targeted as part of a huge team of vaccinators being assembled, trained and paid £11.20 an hour to administer the jabs.
Under the slogan “Your NHS needs you”, the recruitment campaign aimed at enlisting “tens of thousands” of extra staff will stress that vaccines “will be our best defence against the virus alongside effective social distancing, wearing a mask and washing your hands” and that vaccinators will be playing a vital role by immunising “millions of at-risk people”.
Public trust in vaccines has risen in most of Europe in the past five years, with the largest survey of global attitudes to vaccinations suggesting that just 7% of Britons would not accept a Covid-19 vaccine in March. According to the findings in the Lancet, this rose to 11% in June and 14% in July, however.
For the NHS campaign to tackle Covid scepticism, officials plan to use doctors who often appear on television and radio discussing health issues, because of their profile and the trust they are assumed to already have with the public. They will also deploy other “influencers” who are popular on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Religious leaders are being asked to help persuade adherents to their faith that vaccination is good for them, their family and the country as a whole. They are seen as important ways of getting pro-immunisation messages to people of black, Asian and minority ethnic origin in particular, amid concern about potential take-up in some communities.
In Yorkshire, staff from Bradford Royal Infirmary are working with local religious and community leaders to devise ways to encourage the city’s large Asian population to have the jab.
NHS England and Public Health England are also drawing up parallel plans to convince the health service’s 1.4m-strong workforce in England to get vaccinated amid signs that a significant proportion may shun it.
Jacqueline Totterdell, chief executive of St George’s hospital trust in London, told a seminar run by the Health Service Journal: “I think there is a lot of anxiety [among staff], and some of the polls we’ve done around southwest London show that as little as 50% of people are willing just to have it without any [assurance about its safety]. We might all think people might be rushing to have it, but actually we might find that’s not quite the case.”
Thea Stein, the boss of Leeds Community Healthcare NHS trust, told the same event: “People who know about vaccines, know about side-effects, feel they don’t know enough about the potential side-effects of the vaccine [for Covid] … they feel anxious and uncertain.”
Experts say that overall take-up would need to be anything from 60% to 75%, depending on how effective the vaccines prove to be.
The British Medical Association, which represents Britain’s doctors, said those ministers have deemed a priority to receive Covid jabs because of their poor underlying health would need to be reassured that vaccines are safe, to counter apprehension about taking them.
“It is especially important that those most at risk of serious illness, and the people around them, are vaccinated. Such individuals will need evidence-based assurance of vaccine safety and efficacy in their specific group”, said Dr Penelope Toff, co-chair of the BMA’s public health medicine committee.
“It will be vital that there are clear culturally-tailored communications delivered by trusted local and community leaders, and targeted at the most vulnerable and harder-to-reach communities, and that it is made easy for these populations to access vaccination.”
Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia who specialises in infectious diseases, said famous faces could help “people hear the truth and understand the message”.
“Some form of campaign will be essential, even if it is only to advise people how to get vaccinated,” he said. “But with the rise in recent years of vaccine scepticism and the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines then some form of campaign will be needed to counter this.”
The government declined to release details of the campaign. A government spokesperson said: “An effective vaccine will be the best way to protect the most vulnerable from coronavirus and the biggest breakthrough since the pandemic began, potentially saving thousands of lives.
“Vaccines will only be authorised for use if they have met the strict safety and effectiveness standards of the UK’s medicines regulator.”