Ethnic minorities and vaccines: 'Community most likely to die from Covid is the least likely to come forward for jabs'

  • Video report by ITV News Political Reporter Shehab Khan and Senior Producer Roohi Hasan

ITV News has visited two of the worst Covid hit areas with large ethnic minority communities, London's Tower Hamlets and Birmingham, to see first hand the issues and concerns facing the local vaccine effort. New figures seen exclusively by ITV News show that black people in Tower Hamlets are lagging far behind white counterparts in vaccination uptake, with 58% compared to 88%. In the borough, South Asians are dying at three times the rate of their white counterparts. One local GP told us: “The death rate in this area from Covid is one of the highest in the country. And yet the community that is most likely to die from Covid is the least likely to come forward and be vaccinated. And that is of enormous concern to me and other GPs.” 

Despite losing her uncle and grandfather to Covid, student Munadiah Aftab remains unsure about the vaccine, citing health inequality and the government's handling of the pandemic.

"I have been very apprehensive about the vaccine as I know a lot of people in my community have been," she tells ITV News.

"What's important to recognise is that a lot of people talk about the vaccine and say that a lot of people don't want to take the vaccine because of conspiracy theories, and that might be true, but I don't want to patronise my community.

"I think a lot of us have been, for a very long time, misinformed, and health in general seems quite inaccessible and the conversations around health, so it makes sense that people are sceptical."Another reason is that a government that has been unable to respond to the pandemic correctly is now the same government that is telling us to take the vaccine. "So you can understand why people might be cynical about the effects of the vaccine."

Despite her hesitation, she says that if one of her family members was given the opportunity to take the vaccine, then she would encourage them to have it. "That's because it's the best option out there right now," she says.

"Our hands are tied, lives are being lost. And I'm very much aware of that seeing as I've lost two family members," she adds.

One phrase that came up again and again when ITV News talked to young black people in Birmingham was "lack of information".

While those ITV News talked to expressed concerns about the vaccine, overall there was a willingness to learn more.

Concerns range from how quickly the vaccine was developed to long term side effects and fertility problems, issues that have been addressed.

Despite having family members who have died with Covid-19 and a father who is considered high risk, Esther Onyeka says she would not take the vaccine at the moment.

"To be very honest, I don't have a particular feeling towards the vaccine. I'm more just really concerned about what's in it, how it impacts those who have to take it from different communities," she tells ITV News.

"I'm a student. I also have two family members who would be considered high risk and also being a business owner and working with people from all over the country who have had to deal with mental health issues and things like that during the lockdown.

"So that my concern is just how much do we know and how much are we willing to be told about the vaccine?"

She agrees that a lack of trust in the government's handling of the pandemic, which has affected ethnic minorities disproportionately, has helped fuel people's concerns over the vaccine.

"I personally can only speak from a black person's standpoint, but as a black person, I've seen cases where pregnant women who've had issues and who died at a much faster rate than other women while giving birth, and that still hasn't been dealt with.

"And then all of a sudden there's a vaccine that I'm required to take in order to live a somewhat functional life in a pandemic. So there are certain things that can make ethnic minorities, I would say for black people, it can make us have a distrust in the government, in medical health professionals and in the research that they're presenting to us about how we will be safeguarded by taking this vaccine." 

Sarah Longe said: "Let's really understand what people's fears are and actually give them the answers to what they need. So mothers, singles, even people that want to get pregnant, instead of labelling them as an anti-vaxxer just give them more information to put them at ease. When I got the information that I needed, I was happy to get my children vaccinated."

But many believe the messages are not reaching people through the right channels.

Gian-Angelo Obi-Umahi has had the vaccine but says many of his family are skeptical about taking it.

He says: "People are a bit concerned that as Covid has had a lot of political coverage or political reach, they feel that maybe the vaccines might also be somehow politicised and maybe have some kind of agenda behind it."

He says ethnic minorities could be reached through people at a community level.

"I think you're more likely to believe someone that is closer to you someone that you have more of a relationship with, that you can trust."

Gian-Angelo says people in the community are more likely to listen to organisations such as the local church than "the government speaking from hundreds of miles away in Westminster".

He has been doing his bit to address Covid vaccine misinformation.

"I think there's been a lot of fear... and so it helped to hear a trusted voice that they know has their best interests at heart saying, 'well, I've looked into this, I've looked into that, I'm confident about that and covered by that'.

"And also being honest to say, 'well, you know, this area, I'm not so confident about it'. So it's really helped."

Local faith leaders are seen as playing key roles in addressing the mistrust of the Covid vaccine within in their communities.

But one pastor we spoke to said he has not heard from the government.

In response, vaccines deployment minister Nadhim Zahawi said: "We always strive to do better. What we're trying to do is make sure we put the resources in to help the community understand how important it is to get vaccinated and to protect themselves, individually family, and of course their community.

New figures given exclusively to ITV News: 

  • Black locals lagging 30% behind white counterparts still in vaccinations. 58% v 88%. 

  • South Asians dying at three times the rate of their white counterparts. 

"And so when it is your turn, please come forward and take the vaccine. I have great admiration and huge gratitude to the Muslim faith leaders, to the Christian faith leaders, to the Jewish, faith leaders, all different faiths for coming forward and saying 'actually vaccines are good for you'."

Asked about what the government were doing to address the issue of trust, Mr Zahawi said: "It's about that vaccine confidence in sharing the information and voices from people they trust in their communities, which is why we're putting £23 million into local government to identify those trusted voices that those communities that you've quite rightly referred to will listen to, and they will share the information on why vaccines are protecting they're saving about two to three million lives a year around the world."

But Dr Halima Begum, from the Runnymede Trust, says the issue is not just one of trust or hesitancy - but access and health inequality.

"It's not because they are reluctant to take the vaccine," she says.

"We saw the Muslim census show that over 70% of Muslims have either taken the vaccine or would like to take the vaccine. So it's very important now that we focus on moving away from that narrative around hesitation and closer to one that focuses on access and how we get that vaccine closer to the doorsteps."

Approximate figures for week ending 11 February

  • 22% of white people in England have been vaccinated so far (10 million) 

  • 12% of Asian people in England have been vaccinated (411,000) 516.761 

  • 9% of Black people in England have been vaccinated (135,000) 175,000

* NHSE vaccination/Census

Since the vaccine rollout began in December last year, there have been concerns from health workers and officials over the low uptake for the vaccine among BAME communities despite being at bigger risk from Covid-19.

A recent study of 19,044 staff at the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust who had all been offered a vaccination since 12 December found that, as of 3 February, 65% (12,278) had received at least one dose of vaccine.

But of those vaccinated, 71% (8,147 of 11,485) were white compared with 59% (2,843 of 4,863) of South Asian staff and 37% (499 of 1,357) of black staff.

Overall, 36% of the trust’s staff are from ethnic minority backgrounds.

A new data-driven model, based on coronavirus outcomes from the first wave, has identified hundreds of thousands of people with a combination of conditions which means they are at higher risk than previously thought and have been moved up the priority list for a Covid-19 vaccination.

The model considers a range of factors including age, ethnicity, body mass index (BMI), other health conditions and also postcode, which is indicative of levels of deprivation.

The moves come after medical groups representing ethnic minority NHS staff called for their communities to be included in category six - out of the nine priority groups for the vaccine after a survey by the British Medical Association that suggests hundreds of doctors from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds do not feel fully protected from Covid-19 at work.

"Also new risk assessment tools mean finally many high risk people from ethnic minorities and living in deprived areas will now be prioritised for vaccination beyond current JCVI priority lists," Chaand Nagpaul said on Twitter on Wednesday.

Famous faces from British black and Asian communities have fronted a new video hoping to dispel myths around the Covid vaccine causing hesitancy.

Stars including comedian Romesh Ranganathan, singer and actress Beverley Knight and TV personality Adil Ray are addressing unique cultural challenges and concerns around the vaccine in black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in a video campaign.

Prince Charles, who is backing the campaign, said: “It is clear that the virus has affected all parts of the country, and all sections of society – but it is also clear that there are particular challenges faced in particular sections of our society, especially in some ethnic minority communities.

"What saddens me even further is to hear that those challenges are being made even worse by the variable uptake of the vaccines which finally offer us a way out of the suffering of the past year.”

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty suggested it was more a “hesitancy” rather than an outright refusal to take a Covid vaccine and that it was critical to "support people to make sure we combat misinformation.”

He told a Downing Street press conference on Monday, Prof Whitty said he was meeting medical leaders from different ethnic groups “to share experiences and share how we can work out how to make sure people are getting absolutely accurate information that makes clear that the risks of the vaccine are massively lower than the risks of getting this infection”.