On Tuesday 8 December the NHS carried out the first vaccinations in the world from a clinically approved COVID-19 vaccine. This is a fantastic achievement, and it is incredible to think that this vaccine has been developed, tested and now delivered, in ten months. I was pleased to see that East Kent is benefiting from the vaccine straight away. The William Harvey Hospital in Ashford is one of the first fifty covid vaccine delivery centres established around the country, and the first person they administered it to was Mr Kenneth Lamb, a great-grandfather from New Romney.
The COVID-19 vaccine will be administered across the country and based on clinical need. The most vulnerable people will be vaccinated first and the general vaccination of residents in care homes is expected to commence after Christmas. People will be contacted by the NHS and offered an appointment to receive the vaccine. It will be a matter of personal choice as to whether someone accepts this offer, but we hope that everyone does. The more people who have been vaccinated, the quicker we will get control of the virus. Also, you do not need to contact the NHS or your GP surgery to arrange an appointment to receive the vaccine, they will contact you when it is your turn. The vaccine will also be delivered in special centres, rather than at GP surgeries.
On Tuesday I raised with the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, during a question and answer session in the House of Commons, not only how pleased I was to see the arrival of the vaccine, but also to state the importance of people accepting the offer to receive it when that is made. In particular I raised my concern that anti-vaccine disinformation on social media might dissuade some people from taking it. This was a concern I also raised last week at an online international meeting of parliamentarians focused on tackling social media disinformation, including representatives from the USA, Canada, France, Germany and India.
Recent analysis by researchers at CounterAction found large quantities of anti-vaccine disinformation on Facebook. This included more than 30,000 posts in Germany, which for example compared vaccinations with the Holocaust, claimed there would be a “vaccine genocide” and that the vaccine will cause cancer. Their analysis found two million Germans were members of groups sharing such content.
According to the campaign group Avaaz the top 10 websites spreading health disinformation on Facebook have almost four times as many estimated views as content shared from the websites of the world’s 10 leading health institutions. Here, Facebook’s own algorithms are pushing anti-vaxx content over authentic health information.
The impact of this is declining trust in the vaccine. According to research by the Hamburg Center for Health Economics, 70% of Germans said they would take the vaccine in April 2020, but last month that had fallen to 57%. The same research showed that 69% of people in the UK would now take it, but in France it was just 46%.
This is not just a public health challenge, but an example of why we need the social media companies to take more effective action against anti-vaccine conspiracy theories online.