One of the great cautionary tales of the last five years is how political campaigns can start off with what looks like a strong case and end up losing with 48 per cent of the vote. What happened to the Remain campaign is now happening to the campaign to deploy vaccines – and in several countries.
Governments are telling anti-vaxxers that they are stupid; they are exaggerating their case like the French education minister, who suggested that vaccination means that you can no longer infect others. Or they are lecturing people, saying that they should listen to the experts. And when things get really bad, they are talking about compulsion. Compulsory vaccination is the second referendum of our time.
Vaccination is one of the great success stories of modern science. And it is a triumph of German and British science in particular. The focus now should be on making vaccines available to anybody, anywhere in the world, and making all the information about them available. We are not going to fight anti-vaxxer lies with official secrecy.
Remember how the news of the AstraZeneca blood clots leaked almost by accident, when an independent German research lab raised the alarm? At that time, many more doses of that vaccine had already been deployed in the UK. Why did the UK not volunteer that information? They only shared this crucial data when medicine agencies, alarmed by the German research, asked for it. Why not share the data voluntarily? Was the public really not able to handle this information?
And why not admit that there is logically a degree of uncertainty about the long-term side effects of the vaccines? In the German debate about whether to give the vaccine to under-18 year olds and small children, that uncertainty is at least acknowledged by officials. It is logically also true that the risk of a side effect from a vaccine relative to the risk of severe illness from Covid-19 is different for children than for older adults.
There is also a lack of information about vaccine effectiveness. Much of the hard data available to the public on the Delta variant seems to have come from Israel and the Netherlands. How is that possible, when there are so many more Delta variant infections in the UK? The Israeli studies suggest that the vaccine offers a high protection against severe illness, but a lower level of protection against infection and against spreading the virus.
If this is the case, what then is the logic of making vaccination compulsory for certain groups of people? Would testing not be more effective? Perhaps the real reason governments want to drive up vaccination rates beyond their original targets is precisely because the vaccines are less effective – you need more of them to achieve the same degree of herd immunity.
In the UK, 89 per cent of adults have come forward for vaccination but uptake is slowing. The overwhelming majority of jabs now are follow-ups: demand for first shots is falling fast.
So who is the government targeting with its tough talk and vaccine passports? Vaccine hesitancy is at its most acute amongst the young, the most deprived and ethnic minorities.
Recent talk of stopping the unvaccinated attending nightclubs – or having them self-isolate after visiting Amber countries – are having no noticeable effect on the vaccine rate of the young which is plateauing at a lower rate.
Knowing how government communication works, the most plausible explanation we have is that information is deployed on a need-to-know basis. Governments don’t want awkward data to get in the way of the campaign. But remember that if you withhold information, you give the floor to the people on Facebook who tell us that the vaccines contain a microchip of Bill Gates’ brain.
At that point you have lost the moral high ground. In the vaccination campaign the United States looks like it’s heading towards another 50-50 division, like Remain against Leave, or Trump vs Clinton. For the vaccination campaign to be successful, it requires a bigger margin of victory than Joe Biden’s over Donald Trump.