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Ministers Accused Of Creating A "Culture Of Blame" Against Deprived Communities Over Spread Of Indian Variant

Efforts to improve vaccine uptake in minority communities have been hampered by a lack of investment, community leaders have said (PA)

7 min read

The government has been accused of using vaccine hesitancy claims as a "smokescreen" for their failure to prepare for the Indian variant.

MPs, doctors and community leaders have told PoliticsHome the government is reaching for an "easy narrative" to explain the spread of the Indian variant rather than supporting deprived areas, especially those with large ethnic minority communities, where vaccine rates are lower.

It comes after Health Secretary Matt Hancock expressed "frustration" that the "vast majority" of people admitted to hospital in Bolton with the new strain had been "eligible for the jab but haven't had it yet."

Hancock, who has suggested that local lockdowns could be reintroduced in areas with significant outbreaks, added: "The majority have not been vaccinated and, of them, most of them could have been vaccinated, which is frustrating to see, but is also a message to everyone."

But Kawsar Zaman, a practising barrister and founder of the "Take the Covid-19 Vaccine" campaign, said while there was still some hesitancy around taking the vaccines, the bigger issue was a lack of support for deprived communities which have been historically excluded from health services.

"When we talk about Covid-19, when we talk about the Pfizer vaccine, the Moderna vaccine, the AstraZeneca vaccine, we are making an assumption that people know what a vaccine is," he said.

"I had a friend who said he saw that the vaccine doesn't prevent Covid. That it's basically a medicine to be given after you've caught it.

"We assume because it's on the news people understand it, but they really don't."As part of those efforts, Zaman said his group had produced illustrations to explain all the terms around Covid and vaccines, which he said had made a major impact in encouraging people from minority communites to take the jab.

But he warned the issue was misunderstood by the government following a conversation with vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi, who said information was already available to people through the NHS website.

"Well, I've been on the NHS website every day. It leads you to 10-15 different websites, the MHRA website, the individual vaccine websites to find out what the ingredients are,” Zaman added.

"I think a lot more needs to be done for education and making information simple.”

And he said it was “perplexing” that volunteer groups working to improve education in communities had been “left with that responsibility” without “any sort of financial or other support” from the government.

One such group, the British Islamic Medical Association (BIMA), has been working to produce simple graphics to help encourage Muslim communities take the vaccine, including working with Islamic scholars to reassure Muslims that taking the vaccine or Covid tests during Ramandan would not invalidate fasting.

Dr Salman Waqar, the NHS GP and general secretary of BIMA, said the work was crucial to giving a “trusted voice” to “underserved” communities who have seen health inequalities exacerbated during the pandemic.

“We shouldn't forget that last year some MPs were saying that the Muslim areas were responsbile for the second wave, but it was posh parts of Manchester that were seeing their rates go up as well,” he told PoliticsHome.

"We need to break that exceptionalism, because it makes other areas feel that they are immune from it."But he warned that overcoming religious or cultural hurdles was not sufficient to improve vaccine rates in communities who have been "consistently exposed to exclusion" from health services and public health messaging.

"We've got people that can't afford the bus fare or the taxi fare to get to their vaccination center, they can’t make appointments," he added.

“Their employer won't give them time off work to get vaccines.”

And while he insisted people had a "duty" to get the jab, he argued that ensuring local leaders were given the financial support and autonomy to work with sections of the Muslim community who have experienced "socio-political exclusion" was vital to improving vaccination rates.

Waqar added: "The fact that services aren't necessarily designed to cater for them, in many parts of the country that has meant they are still lagging behind."

Conservative MP Caroline Nokes, chair of the Commons Women and Equalities committee, which is probing disparity in the vaccine programme, said understanding the issue required a more thorough, data-led approach.

"What was striking when we heard from the Ministers was they did not know what the refusal data was, there is a real difference between hesitancy and refusal," she told PoliticsHome.

"And if you do not know why people are refusing to have the vaccine it is difficult to find ways to persuade them. The experts we heard from were very clear that information needed to be tailored, not generic, needed to be in a language people could understand and relate to, and via media channels they would ordinarily use."

And while she welcomed the government's commitment to do more to tackle vaccine hesitancy, she said there was "clearly issues" around efforts to create "community champions" to raise awareness, saying her committee's expert witnesses "had barely even heard of" the scheme.

Meanwhile, Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi, whose Bolton constituency has seen the largest rise in cases of the new variant, claimed ministers were failing to address barriers facing deprived communities by instead blaming the surge on vaccine “refuseniks”.

Her comments come amid criticism over the handling of the Indian variant, which Labour have argued would have been “completely avoidable” had ministers acted faster to introduce tougher border controls when concerns about the new strain were first raised.

Qureshi, who has already hit out at the “shambolic” decision to delay adding India to the UK’s travel red list, added: "To get past this current situation with the Indian variant we need to look at how things are and not make assumptions.

“I was strong in my criticism of comments by government ministers pinning this on vaccine 'refuseniks' because I feel they are reaching for the easy narrative.

"Of course people who have not had the vaccine will be more likely to go into hospital than those who have not.

“The problems in Bolton are not because we have larger than average 'vaccine hesitancy' or 'anti-vax' sentiment, it is because we have the Indian variant working through our communities.”

Qureshi said she had already raised concerns about the lack of access to vaccine sites for those living in deprived parts of her constituency, adding that there has "always been a need to tailor a vaccine programme to ensure a strong take up where these demographics are prevalent".

And while she praised local health services for working to overcome the issues, she added: "Government ministers should recognise those unique factors and not reach for the simplest solutions.

"It is important to learn the right lessons or this will happen in other areas too."

Meanwhile, Zahid Chauhan, an NHS GP and Oldham Labour councillor, accused the government of creating a “smokescreen” to cover for “decades of poor investment” into health education in some communities.

And he argued the focus on vaccine hesitancy, which he claimed was “genuinely” less about race and religion, and more about “historic health inequality” risked creating “division” between communities.

“The last thing they should be doing is start dividing people further. We are already together in this [pandemic] and I think when your national leadership starts sending these messages it doesn't serve any good purpose,” he said

“You end up losing. It's not going to benefit us either in the short term or the long-term. I think, in a way, it's been used as a smokescreen.”

He added: “I can't put my hand on my heart and say people are getting all the right information about getting access to services, or getting appointments for vaccinations.

“There are a number of factors, and people have the right to make an informed choice, whether they want to or not, but we aren't at the stage where people can make that informed decision and as a leadership they should not, under any circumstances, be promoting a culture of blaming people."

The Department for Health and Social Care have been approached for comment.

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