Matt Hancock is blaming people in Bolton for "vaccine hesitancy" – I won’t stand for it
After the torrid fifteen months we have had locally in Bolton, to be treated as some kind of knuckle-dragging outliers by those in Westminster is deeply disingenuous.
In the past month, as the vaccination rollout ramped up, coronavirus rates across England and Greater Manchester decreased, and locally speaking, Bolton’s vaccination continued apace with the rest of the country.
Despite this, a worrying trend emerged, as it did last summer: the rates in Bolton began to flatten out, and then we saw a small yet not insignificant increase.
Fast forward to today, Bolton’s case rate sits at 282 per 100,000 - ten times that of England’s average and around nine times the neighbouring borough of Bury. We currently have 19 people hospitalised in the Royal Bolton Hospital with the Indian variant.
Naturally, the national media’s focus has now placed Bolton in the spotlight – and a debate has sparked in government as to whether it should proceed with the June 21st roadmap, or change course, as a result of so called “vaccine hesitancy.”
This has since snowballed in the last 24 hours into a furore aimed at some of my constituents, whom Matt Hancock suggested to be part of the refuseniks.
After the torrid fifteen months we have had locally, to be treated as some kind of knuckle-dragging outliers by those in Westminster is deeply disingenuous.
As Paul Waugh outlined, for Hancock to claim that the “overwhelming majority” of those in hospital had been offered a vaccine but refused it, is wrong. It is a much more nuanced issue. Let me be clear – vaccine misinformation is of course a worry throughout the United Kingdom, and we should treat it with concern.
But in my town of Bolton, there are complex, structural issues and the “one-size-fits-all” vaccine rollout does not compute with the borough - an issue I have raised countless times.
It would therefore be most helpful if government ministers would stop reaching for easy narratives and handy soundbites, which fuel division.
Even the Prime Minister’s former aide, Dominic Cummings, referred to our border policy as a joke
According to the most recent ONS data, our proportion of employees working from home is well below the national average – meaning people are forced to commute into work, placing their health at risk.
Over a quarter of our workforce is employed by the local council, many of whom work in social care – well known to be precarious and insecure. A large proportion work in traditional manufacturing industries, and many work for the NHS and in food retail shops.
When you look at housing, in Bolton there is a significant number of intergenerational households as well as high levels of deprivation and unemployment. Factor into this that 30% of households do not have access to a car, it all creates a perfect storm for additional barriers to the vaccine.
These are all reasons why, since day one, I have been arguing that the JCVI must take a more localised and targeted approach to the rollout.
These clear barriers rear their heads in an example such a this: if you work 60 hours a week on a factory floor, 6 days a week, for minimum wage, without access to a car – are you really going to have time to book a vaccine appointment, take a day’s holiday, and take two buses to get to the vaccination centre?
As far back as February, I also called for community hubs in Bolton and beyond to drive interest and engagement in the vaccination programme for hard-to-reach groups – to ensure that the vaccination drive is successful – and to avoid the very issue of vaccine hesitancy, but of course the government didn’t heed this advice.
I therefore find it doubly insulting that the government now turns to say that it is “vaccine hesitancy” in Bolton South East driving this issue.
Additionally, to suggest this situation we now face, in which between Bolton and Blackburn we have one-quarter of all cases of the Indian variant in the UK, is entirely down to people refusing the vaccine, is ludicrous.
When the government made the shambolic decision to leave India off the red list for travel, despite the exponential increase in cases, it allowed the Indian variant into the country unfettered. Even the Prime Minister’s former aide, Dominic Cummings, referred to our border policy as “a joke.”
After weeks of hesitancy to place India on the red list, the ultimate irony of this latest debacle is that the Indian foreign minister tested positive, in the UK, for the very variant that is now most prevalent in my constituency – yet the Health Secretary seems to think it’s reasonable to blame people in Bolton for “vaccine hesitancy” – I won’t stand for it.
Ultimately, in line with what both UK Labour and the Mayor of Greater Manchester have both said, we must avoid local lockdowns at all costs. They didn’t work in the autumn and they won’t work now.
We need the government to take a proactive approach, with surge vaccinations, and allow local authorities and health boards to ensure that everyone over the age of 16 can have a vaccine, with appropriate accommodations made for those, as mentioned above, who have structural barriers to accessing the jab.
We all know that the vaccine is the only way out, and whilst the programme has covered a large number of people, we need to move forward in a constructive way to ensure we avoid further restrictions this summer.
Yasmin Qureshi is the Labour MP for Bolton South East.