The light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel just shone a little brighter. Hot on the heels of early vaccine results from BioNTech and Pfizer, similarly early results from Moderna suggest their vaccine should also be highly effective in protecting against COVID-19. While we need to remain a little cautious until more data is published, this is undoubtedly great news.
So job done, then? Sadly, not. Aside from the enormous logistical challenges in getting two doses of vaccines to 67 million Brits, vaccines only work if people accept them. And we need a lot of people to get the vaccine if we’re to achieve herd immunity.
This is a massive challenge of influencing people’s behaviour.
One of the lessons from the pandemic has been the importance of communications in motivating behavioural change: from wearing face coverings to social distancing. We’ve seen that precisely how the NHS and the government frame information can be as important as the information itself. For example, appealing to a desire to protect vulnerable older people appears to be more effective than appeals to protect oneself.
A number of vaccines have been questioned over the years. Even though there are policies in place, and safe and effective vaccines available, almost every country struggles with vaccine hesitancy.
Surveys suggest a small minority of people are anti-vaccine: they believe myths or conspiracy theories about vaccines. However, these myths and conspiracy theories can quickly spread on social media to a bigger proportion of people who, while not anti-vaccination, may have reasonable questions about the risks and benefits. Recent research from Cambridge University suggests there is a link between exposure to vaccination conspiracy theories online and being anti-vaccination.
Part of the solution might be to shut down these online conspiracy theories; this is a policy supported by the Labour party. I suspect that’s likely to help. But putting to one side the issue of free speech, this is likely to be insufficient. People also need good information that addresses their questions.
For instance, both vaccines reporting positive results are based on RNA technology, which is a new type of vaccines for humans. I suspect most of us don’t really know what RNA is. But we might intuitively be a little sceptical about a new type of vaccine based on “something about genetics”. Similarly, we know vaccines usually take many years to develop. We might intuitively assume these rapid COVID-19 vaccines have cut corners somehow. Even though this is false, it sort-of adds-up if we’re not closely paying attention to the details of how clinical trials are managed.
Addressing these and other questions require good, clear information that gets to the heart of people’s real-world concerns. It’s a little more nuanced than just shutting down the lies.
There are a range of approaches to reassure and motivate people to get the vaccine. Behavioural scientists have been researching vaccines uptake for years, so there exists lots of good evidence. The key principle is to go with the grain of how people actually think and make decisions in the real world. That is, while some people are paying very close attention to the details of the science, most of us – most of the time – are going with gut reactions of what feels right.
Here are three evidence-based recommendations:
Use relatable stories rather than relying solely on statistics
Though, of course, stories grounded in facts. All good communicators know stories are easier to relate to than numbers, though we still too often overlook this when it comes to health. The more relatable and vivid the story is to recall, the better. I appreciated, for example, the deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, and his ‘mum test’. In a government press conference he said he’d want his own, elderly mother to have the vaccine: “I’ve already said to her, ‘Mum, make sure when you’re called you’re ready, be ready to take this up, this is really important for you because of your age.’” This is very relatable and very human.
Consider the messenger for the vaccination campaigns
This can matter as much as the message itself. It should be someone people trust. Professor Heidi Larson from the Vaccines Confidence Project has suggested the secret weapon to boost the public’s trust in the COVID-19 vaccine might be Her Majesty the Queen. At 94, the Queen is in the at-risk age group. She’s extremely liked and trusted by older people who are first in line for the vaccine. To motivate younger people, we may need to enlist other types of messengers.
Be positive and celebrate the social norm
Rather than dwelling on a vocal minority of sceptics. Surveys results vary a little, but around three-quarters of Brits would likely get the vaccine – and over half definitely would. One way to intuitively motivate others is to make the COVID-19 vaccination feel like the usual thing to do rather than something odd or unusual.
The next few months will be hard, especially as various levels of lockdown continue over the winter. We need to stay motivated to stick to all those necessary actions of social distancing and wearing face coverings – while keeping an eye on that light at the end of the tunnel.