Sabrina Daley, 40, stands outside New Tings, the Brixton Caribbean restaurant where she works as a chef, listing the reasons she’s not bothered about having the Covid jab. “I’m not saying never, but I don’t rave and I haven’t left the UK in 20 years, so to me, having a vaccine passport doesn’t make a difference,” she says.
The Jamaican-born mother-of-four had Covid, “terribly”, in November (“the only place I didn’t have pain was my hair”) and lost close friends to the virus at the start of the pandemic, but she doesn’t regret not having the vaccine. Despite having an appointment booked two days before catching Covid, and widely-publicised figures showing that nine in ten ICU patients are unvaccinated, she chose not to go. “I’ve heard of people who’ve taken the vaccine and still got sick with Covid...” she says. “So what’s the point?”h3">
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>‘No payments’ for unvaccinated healthcare staff sacked in mandatory jab plans
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>How countries across the world are clamping down on the unvaccinated
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>Intensive care doctor says every Covid patient currently in his hospital’s ICU is unvaccinated
It’s been four weeks since the street where Daley works, Acre Lane, recorded the highest coronavirus rate in the country, with one in ten residents recording positive cases during the second week of last month – six times the UK average. At the time, health experts put much of this figure down to the area’s low vaccination rate, with 34.2 per cent of residents in the area not having had the jab, putting it in the bottom 15 council areas in the country for vaccine uptake, alongside the likes of Westminster where four in ten residents are completely unvaccinated.
Their views are wide-ranging, from account manager Alice Read, 24, who’s had the jab herself (”for my grandparents”) but knows young creatives in their twenties who’ve refused it because “they don’t want to be told what to do”, to new mother Amelia Williams, 33, whose best friend hasn’t been vaccinated because of concerns around the side effects.
Daley and her friends might not be worried about low vaccination rates in the area, but on the other side of the river in Westminster, concern is building. This week the government indicated plans to scrap Plan B rules as soon as this month - but will the city’s low vaccination levels get in the way of their planned return to ‘normal’? Already, unvaccinated members of the public are becoming a major problem across the NHS, with recent data from the UK Health Security Agency showing that people who have not been vaccinated are up to eight times more likely to be hospitalised with the virus, adding extra pressure on hospitals that are already close to breaking-point.
Chris Whitty recently said he was “saddened” by the proportion of unvaccinated Covid patients in intensive care (roughly nine in ten) and Dr Steve Mowle, a GP running a vaccine clinic in the Acre Lane area, has called the misinformation that leads to these figures “frustrating”, with those as young as 30 often left fighting for their lives. “We’ve heard tragic stories from those working on the frontline that intensive care units are full of patients who wish they could go back in time and get vaccinated, but that it’s sadly too late,” health secretary Sajid Javid said earlier this month.
The implications are being seen outside of the NHS. With many industries asking their employees to be vaccinated before coming to work, low vaccination rates are leading to staff shortages across sectors from social care to transport, with many leaders calling for greater pressure to be put on unvaccinated people so society can return to something closer to normality. “I really want to piss them off,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a (now heavily-criticised) statement about unvaccinated people earlier this month.
Daley shrugs – she’s not surprised by her area’s low vaccination figures. Only one person she knows has had the Covid vaccine and anti-vaxx rhetoric in the area is – literally – clear to see. Just 50 metres down the road outside a Tesco superstore, a graffitied clothing-collection bin displays some of the wide-ranging anti-vaccine arguments amongst people in the area. “Poison jab!!!” reads a line scrawled in angry black capitals – a nod to concerns about side effects and certain false news stories about what the vaccine contains. Another line of graffiti points to a baseless but sinister conspiracy theory that the pandemic was planned by a shadowy cabal of elites as a method of ethnic cleansing or “depopulation”, while other conspiracy theories include the belief that vaccination is a method of microchipping the population.
We’ve heard tragic stories that intensive care units are full of patients who wish they could go back in time and get vaccinated
Other graffitied phrases point to less extreme views. “It’s the flu FFS,” one line on the bin reads, suggesting - as many locals believe - that the government’s Covid response is an overreaction to a flu-like virus. A passing mother and her teenage son confirm this. “I don’t even take the flu jab – I just let my natural immune system cope with it and I find that’s the best thing for me,” Julie Obalola, 51, the wife of a bus driver, tells me on her walk home from the shops.
She points to Brixton’s Universal Pentecostal Church next door and says she’ll continue to pray to God that the pandemic ends soon. “I live my life by the word of God – so far it’s protected me from the virus,” an 80-year-old pastor at the same church said last month. “There’s no need for me to have the vaccine.”
Acre Lane might have been singled out as the country’s Covid hotspot in the run up to Christmas – rates there remain among the highest in the country – but its low vaccine uptake is far from an anomaly. London currently holds 14 out of the country’s 15 least vaccinated postcodes, with a third of Londoners still yet to have a single jab, compared to 11 per cent across the whole of the UK. In certain boroughs that figure is even higher - in Westminster, four in ten residents are completely unvaccinated. So why has London become the country’s unvaccinated hotspot? And what are people’s reasons for choosing not to have a vaccine that could protect themselves and others from the virus?
First, London has a more “transient” population than the rest of the country so the figures might not entirely reflect the truth, says Dr Pauline Paterson, co-director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. But it’s not all dodgy data – the capital does indeed have a higher proportion of vaccine sceptics and refuseniks than the rest of the country, and it’s important to note the complex and personal reasons behind this.
As Whitty pointed out this month, the majority of unvaccinated ICU patients are not conspiracy theorists with “weird views”, but ordinary people who have fallen for “deliberate online misinformation”. A stroll along Acre Lane reveals everyone from laundry workers who haven’t found the time or energy to book an appointment, to members of minority ethnic communities who fear being shunned by younger family members if they take the jab.