Photo: Laurel and Hardy from RV1864 flickr photostream

“People who spread myths about the harms of vaccines have “blood on their hands”.

These words came from the Health Secretary Matt Hancock little more than 18 months ago in an article in which he said that he refused to rule out compulsory immunisations. The Health Secretary confidently told the public that vaccines are “good for you, good for your children, and good for your neighbour”.

I was thinking about this 18-month gap a few weeks back when Boris Johnson rudely curtailed my enjoyment of Celebrity Catchphrase with his televised second national lockdown announcement.

I was sat in my lounge with my partner and our children, watching the latest in a long line of increasingly bizarre politics/science mashups. Johnson was once again flanked by his science bodyguards in the vain hope that it would lend him enough credibility to pull off another lockdown.

As has become customary by now, Professor Chris Witty looked like he was in a hostage video (which by now he pretty much is) and the Chief Scientific Officer, Patrick Vallance, nervously rushed through a barrage of increasingly incomprehensible graphs in the hope that nobody would have time to notice that he’d carefully affixed his career to the Christmas Cracker politician in the middle.

Trust was a central theme in the room as the three visibly uncomfortable men asked the nation to trust them as they prepared to shut it down for four weeks.

Trust in our science/politics mashup is a serious matter in how we prepare for the imminent coronavirus vaccine. A general mistrust of scientific and political organisations is at the heart of scepticism towards a coronavirus vaccine. Professor Kavita Vedhara has spoken about “vaccine hesitancy” which has seen widespread scepticism for the safety of a potential Covid-19 vaccine.

This is perhaps unsurprising given that Ministers have been accused of fuelling public “mistrust” in the middle of the battle against Covid-19 by publishing inadequate figures on coronavirus tests where Britain’s statistics watchdog accused the Government of putting out figures which “fall well short” of expectations. Moreover, during the crisis, an estimated £1 billion worth of public sector contracts have been handed to companies without competition, with concerns being raised about the relationship between those who have won contracts and members of the government.

Trust matters more than ever now. A report by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) has lambasted social media companies for allowing the anti-vaccine movement to remain on their platforms. As the vaccine wars ramp up, 31 million people now follow anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, with 17 million people subscribing to similar accounts on YouTube. The CCDH calculated that the anti-vaccine movement could realise US$1 billion in annual revenues for social media firms.  Their report, ‘Failure to Act’, describes how out of 912 posts containing misinformation about COVID-19, fewer than one in 20 were dealt with by social media companies.

The vaccine wars pretty much consist of three camps. We have on one side the members of the public who are on board with vaccinations. This is most people (70-90%). You then have the hardline anti-vaxxers. Like members of all the best cults, these are mostly hyper-evangelists who are utterly impenetrable and will only find information palatable if it contains at least one conspiracy theory in it. Their brand of conspiratorial ideation is immensely powerful, woefully deluded, incredibly dangerous and most important, very transmittable.

Finally, we have the undecideds. The undecideds are the prize in the vaccine wars and it looks like the anti-vaxxers are much better at entangling themselves with these undecideds on social media than the pro-vaccination clusters are.

Last month, a UNICEF report found half a million UK children went unvaccinated over the past seven years. The World Health Organisation say ‘vaccine hesitancy’ is now one of the top ten threats to public health with figures showing global measles cases rose 300 per cent in the first three months of 2019, compared to the same period last year. In 2018, there was a marked increase in the number of confirmed measles cases, with 991 confirmed cases in England and Wales, compared with 284 cases in 2017.

The Ebola and Zika outbreaks, in 2014 and 2015, were exacerbated by local claims that the viruses were hoaxes. The panic over the MMR vaccine in the UK, and its discredited claims of a link to autism in 1998, has had long-lasting effects on immunisation rates. Between 1994 and 1995, around 91 per cent of children were vaccinated – but this had fallen to just 80 per cent by 2003.

With vaccination, resistance from even a small minority can have tragic consequences for many.

In the viral ‘Plandemic’ video, coronavirus outbreak is blamed on a conspiracy led by big pharma, Bill Gates and the World Health Organization. There are prominent conspiracy theories linking 5G networks to vaccines with research showing that the belief in one conspiracy predicts belief in others, even if they happen to contradict each other.

 As many as a quarter of the U.S. population is already threatening not to take the vaccine and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that believers of COVID-19 conspiracy theories are joining forces with believers of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories within a rapidly growing movement intent on mounting a full-scale misinformation war against vaccines. This is particularly troubling since anti-vaccine Facebook pages outnumber pro-vaccine pages more than 2:1.

Mistrust of authoritative sources leaves many vulnerable to these conspiracy theories. The Royal Society suggest that a community-level vaccine coverage of 80+% will be required to protect the community from infection, dependent on the vaccine efficacy and duration of protection. Around 36% in the UK and 51% in the US report they are either uncertain or unlikely to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The tricky thing for the government is that, after an almost comical gap between boasts about the privatised test and trace and the reality, after dragging their feet on both lockdowns, letting their muse swan around the UK looking for mythical eye tests, watching its oldest and most vulnerable residents dying in nursing homes in appalling numbers and closing their Public Health England in the middle of a pandemic, they have something of a legitimacy crisis.

All this after 10 years of austerity that stretched and fragmented the NHS, rendered the country economy unproductive and left our elderly-care system an unreformed national disgrace. All we had to protect us was a vague whiff of imperial nostalgia and that doesn’t go far when COVID is menacing care homes.

So now this week, just as 18 months ago, we see Matt Hancock say he ‘cannot rule out’ the possibility of mandatory Covid vaccinations for the UK.

However, in that 18 month period, Matt Hancock has become the face of these many failures as he relentlessly crashes from one blunder to the next with the only continuity being his regular mauling at the hands of reporters.  His interview strategy of looking like he doesn’t understand the words coming out of his own mouth hasn’t stood up well to close scrutiny. And while it’s undeniably diverting to watch a man publicly wrestle with his own befuddlement, there is a very real cost to this.

The public visibility of scientists flanking politicians was an attempt to bring legitimacy to political decision making. However, as Johnson and Hancock roam the airwaves with their uniquely curious Laurel and Hardy act, the opposite has happened. The all-corrosive debasement of UK politics has sullied every institution that it has come into contact with, including the hostage-video scientists, rolled out on demand. These could be tough times ahead in the vaccine wars.