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Government’s ‘wildly inappropriate comments’ over UK’s ‘brilliance’ risk vaccine hesitancy, scientists warn

Ashley Cowburn
·3-min read
<p>Regulators approved the Pfizer/BionNTech vaccine earlier this week</p> (AFP via Getty)

Regulators approved the Pfizer/BionNTech vaccine earlier this week

(AFP via Getty)

Ministers have been accused of risking an increase in vaccine hesitancy among the public by making “wildly inappropriate comments” about the “brilliance” of Britain in becoming the first west country to approve a Covid-19 jab.

Independent Sage also criticised the government for “snatching chaos from the jaws of sanity” with distracting rows over erroneous claims that Brexit allowed UK regulators to approve the Pfizer/BionNTech vaccine more rapidly.

In a briefing on Friday, the group – set up to shadow the official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – urged for greater transparency and a public health campaign from the government to combat “vaccine hesitancy” and questions over the rollout.

While praising an “authoritative” No 10 briefing fronted by medicine regulators and virus experts on Wednesday, Deenan Pillay, a professor of virology at University College London and member of Independent Sage, criticised the political response to the approval.

He said: “Within a few hours, government ministers were making wildly inappropriate comments about the brilliance of the UK, how we were ahead of the rest of the world, and even that we could only do this because of Brexit.

“Unsurprisingly, there was an immediate response from the European Medicines Agency, European ministers of health and even Anthony Fauci in the US saying that this was not a race, and that time was needed to ensure the safety of vaccines and future vaccine recipients.

“It seemed actually once again the UK was snatching chaos from the jaws of sanity and in the process merely potentially adding to vaccine hesitancy.”

His comments came after Matt Hancock, the health secretary, faced criticism for boasting that the authorisation process was faster in the UK than in the EU because Britain was no longer a member – only to be contradicted hours later by the medicines regulator.

Alok Sharma, the business secretary, also provoked a backlash from the German ambassador to London for suggesting that the approval will be remembered in years to come “as the day the UK led humanity’s charge against this disease”.

And on Thursday, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, was accused of “jingoistic nonsense” after he claimed in a radio interview that Britain secured approval of the Covid-19 vaccine ahead of European countries and the US because it is a “much better country”.

Speaking on Friday, Prof Pillay praised the “rigorous” work of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which gave the green light to the vaccine, but added: “We would urge the MHRA and the government to negotiate with trial investigators and sponsors of trials to make data available for public scrutiny.

“In other words, some of the data that has been shared in confidence with the regulators … we think should become more available.”

As more vaccines go through the regulatory process, he said ministers could enhance trust by creating a publicly available dashboard showing data on issues of safety, efficacy and activity of the jabs across high-risk groups.

Professor Gabriel Scally, the president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine, also echoed calls for greater transparency, saying: “Independent Sage’s view is that all of that data should be public.

“We should have absolute transparency about the vaccine – both the data from the trials but also things like the content of the vaccine. If you go into a shop to buy a manufactured food product you will see on the packing the ingredient list.”

Dr Zubaida Haque, the interim director of the Runnymede Trust, said: “We’ve got more than one group we should be concerned about – first of all, there’s the anti-vaxxers, but actually most surveys have suggested they are quite a small group who hold those extreme positions.

“The group that we really need to be concerned about are the hesitant group and that group is quite large. The government really needs to do an active, myth-busting campaign that’s targeted towards Bame communities, that’s targeted towards the hesitant communities, rather than just the anti-vaxxers.”

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