'A matter of life and death’: ITV News told of urgency to vaccinate Britain’s vulnerable ethnic minorities

Words by ITV News Senior Producer Roohi Hasan and ITV's International Affairs Editor Rageh Omaar

As the UK crossed the tragic milestone of 100,000 lives lost this week to Covid 19, the disproportionate impact on its Black, Asian and ethnic minority groups is ever apparent.

ITV News has been reporting on this for the past year and two weeks ago revealed one Muslim cemetery had seen a tenfold daily increase in burials this month. We have been investigating the two major challenges ahead in trying to protect these communities and vaccinate them as soon as possible against the virus.

The first is, while pressure is building on the government to include ethnic minorities in the vaccine priority groups, they have not been as of yet. The government told us that age - not race - is the greater factor. The second is that many in the black, Asian and ethnic minority communities seem reluctant to take it - with one survey suggesting almost three quarters of black Britons do not want to be vaccinated. Including minorities in priority groups The Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi, when asked if he will include ethnic minorities in the priority vaccine groups, told us: “So the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation looked at this and looked at BAME and, of course, the disproportionate number of people who are being infected and then ended up in hospital and dying from Covid.

"And they fell very, very clearly on the side... that the greatest link is age.”

He did reveal though that "as of this week", ethnicity will be recorded. He said this is "so we can see the challenge that we have ahead of us. And it is a challenge no doubt". However, the head of the new independent NHS Race and Health Observatory body, Dr Habib Naqvi, told ITV News the focus has to be on race as well as age and explained why he considered this issue a matter of “life and death”. “We know that black and minority ethnic communities are at higher clinical risk from Covid-19," he said.

"We need to act now and support those vulnerable communities in making the right decision, in making informed decisions around the vaccine.”

Dr Habib Naqvi on the need to reaffirm the guidance

Reluctance to take the vaccine

ITV News also heard from community members and leaders, including an Imam and Pastor, on what needs to be done and what they feel the issue with the government approach and messaging is. We saw firsthand outreach efforts - on the streets and in places of worship and even on TikTok.

We visited the borough of Brent, which is one of the most ethnically diverse in the UK and one of the hardest hit by coronavirus. Here they have mobilised multi-lingual ambassadors alongside its council staff to combat a worryingly high rate of resistance to taking the vaccine among its many ethnic communities. Locals from the black and Asian community told us repeatedly they didn’t feel they had the information they needed and that the government had failed in getting the message out in time and with the right tone.

We saw Imam Qari Asim in Leeds trying to convince people to trust the government’s advice that taking the vaccine is needed to save lives.

But whether it's from the pulpit or the webinars, he told us it comes back to one simple problem, especially amongst the young people he’s spoken to - they don’t care whether the vaccine is safe, they don’t trust the source where its coming from, so we've realised that the messenger is as important in this pandemic as the message we are delivering.

His Christian counterpart in Brent, Pastor Alton Bell, shared a similar story with us - that his community’s distrust of government has accumulated over decades – from vaccine experiments on black Americans without their knowledge in the 50s, to the Windrush scandal and Grenfell.

He told us it is not the science that is the issue, but the government.

"They want black people to take this vaccine and not explaining to them what the benefits are and what the risks are," he said.

"Because, you know, black people aren't stupid. We know what the risk benefit analysis are."

And finally, efforts to encourage trust and combat misinformation about the virus in minority communities has also gone online.

Some of Britain’s best known figures including Meera Syal and Moeen Ali took part in a new grassroots video this week to trying to dispel fears about the vaccine. Some ethnic minority medics and healthcare workers on the frontline also decided to take matters in their own hands and go on Tiktok to get the message out. It seems that, unless the government and community leaders can engage with each other more effectively and focus on the urgent issues that makes Britain’s ethnic minority groups vulnerable to the virus, they will continue to suffer more than their fellow Britons in a pandemic that has laid bare the inequalities in British society.