Hardcore vaccine refuseniks could need deradicalising like terrorists – expert

A London Bus drives tries to remove anti-vaccine stickers from his vehicle Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

A “deradicalisation” programme like those given to former terrorists or cult members might be the only way to dissuade some hardcore antivaxxers from their beliefs, according to one psychology expert.

Around six million eligible people in the UK have not received a single jab a year on from the first Covid vaccination being given in the UK.

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, chair in cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, was keen to stress that many of those are likely to be “marginalised” people who are “very difficult to reach for anything”, and for whom access is likely to be the biggest issue rather than psychological or ideological factors.

But for a small section of “hardcore refuseniks”, he said, it may be difficult to reach them by conventional means because their beliefs are so ingrained.

He told the PA news agency: “They’ll refuse anything – ‘I’m not going to wear a mask’, ‘I’m not going to get vaccinated’, ‘I don’t think climate change is happening’, ‘Covid is a hoax’, and, you know, ‘Hillary Clinton is actually a reptilian shapeshifter’.

“You’re getting to people who hold a cluster of very exotic beliefs – now, they’re very difficult to reach.”

Around six million eligible people in the UK remain unvaccinated Credit: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Measures that could be used to reach more moderate people who remain unvaccinated, he said, include assigning vaccine appointments to people rather than asking them to book their own, or setting up pop-up clinics in places like supermarkets or shopping centres.

Another measure would be introducing a vaccine mandate, which he said “will disgruntle a few people” but “can be effective”.

But for those with more extreme views, he said, those methods may not be effective.

He added: “In the ideal world, time and money permitting, you can engage even those people in a very slow, long-term process where you affirm their right to have those beliefs… rather than telling them something about themselves they don’t want to hear, let’s put it that way.

“So you tell them something positive, and then engage in what is effectively the same as a deradicalisation process for former terrorists, or cult members.

“Because we’re really talking, when we get down to that small number of committed refusers, we’re talking about the psychology of cults and extremism, and it’s a very similar psychology.”

Mr Lewandowsky said online misinformation is a contributing factor, adding that while some steps had been taken to remove false claims, sites like Facebook and YouTube are “not doing enough”.

People can live in an ‘ecosystem of misinformation’ online Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

“One of the reasons these hardcore refuseniks exist is because they can live in their own ecosystem of misinformation,” he said.

Among those who continue to refuse the Covid vaccines is 44-year-old Paul Barrett from Newcastle, who believes they are “dangerous”.

Mr Barrett said he has researched the topic by watching videos and reading articles online and believes the public is “being lied to”.

“Nothing could make me decide to have this jab, it’s dangerous,” he told PA.

“I’ve had Covid and it’s true I was very ill and could barely breathe for over a week but I survived through my immune system, I’m willing to continue to trust said immune system rather than a jab with so many cases of bad, life-ending side affects.

“I believe we’re being lied to.”

Online Covid misinformation is “a very serious public health issue”, according to one expert.

Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, told PA: “People have died, and more still are at greater risk of suffering from Covid, because they got their medical information from Facebook and other social media sites.

“These platforms are chronically polluted because anti-vaxxers have been allowed to dump toxic misinformation into people’s feeds on a daily basis for years with impunity.

“Most people who haven’t been jabbed aren’t what you might refer to as ‘committed anti-vaxxers’ – they are merely vaccine-hesitant, because they’ve been deliberately and cynically targeted with a steady campaign of half-truths, baseless conspiracy theories and outright lies.”