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Equality campaigners, politicians and scientists have warned that ministers could end up stoking divisions by suggesting that the increases in Covid cases in Bolton, Blackburn, and Erewash are due to vaccine hesitancy in certain communities.
Bolton has the highest case rate in the country with 275 cases per 100,000 residents in the week to 12 May. Bedford has overtaken Erewash and Blackburn to become the country’s second worst Covid hotspot, with 122 cases per 100,000. In the Lever Edge area of Bolton, more than 1,000 residents per 100,000 tested positive for Covid in the week to 12 May.
On Monday, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, urged people who were hesitant of taking the vaccine to “look at what is happening in Bolton hospital where the majority of people in hospital with coronavirus were eligible for the jab but have chosen not yet to have the jab and have ended up in hospital, some of them in intensive care”.
Yasmin Qureshi, the Labour MP for Bolton South East, said ministers were peddling a “dangerous” narrative and that she had already received emails from people blaming residents for travelling overseas – and potentially bringing back Covid– “when we British people stayed at home”.
She added: “Already you can see an element of racism coming through. [The government narrative] is really unhelpful. It wasn’t vaccine hesitancy; it’s that it wasn’t rolled out well enough and this Conservative government is blaming everyone but themselves and it causes tension”.
But Dr Zubaida Haque, a member of Independent Sage and former interim director Runnymede Trust, said it was “misleading and unethical of the health secretary, Matt Hancock to suggest that vaccine hesitancy is driving the rapid spread of the B1617.2, so-called Indian variant given his conclusions are based on a sample of 18 hospitalisations in Bolton where six out of 18 people did take the vaccine”.
Case rates in Bolton are higher among those aged under 40, who were not eligible to receive their first dose of a vaccine until 12 May. Guardian analysis found that there were 380 cases per 100,000 among under 40s in the previous week, compared with 163 among those aged 40 and over. Both rates are more than 10 times higher than in England as a whole, but the gap between the two age groups is broadly similar to the national picture.
Bolton’s vaccination rate was in line with the national average, with 88.9% of the 40+ population receiving their first dose compared with 89.8% England-wide. However, there are variations in vaccination rates within the local authority. In Lever Edge, 84.7% of those aged 40 and over are vaccinated. The area with the second highest case rate, Rumworth South, reported a vaccination rate of 79.4%.
But some parts of Bolton with higher-than-average vaccination rates are also experiencing a high caseload: more than 91% of over-40s in Lostock and Ladybridge and Over Hulton have been vaccinated, yet the case rates there stood at 557 and 521 per 100,000 respectively.
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University, said the evidence also shows that the rises in cases are most prominent among school-age children and those under 30, who are not yet eligible for vaccination.
She argued that small differences in rates across communities was unlikely to be driving the increase in cases and said that much higher levels of vaccination would be needed to contain spread. She said: “This is why a vaccine-only strategy was always very risky, and not grounded in any evidence.”
She added: “This seems to be government abdicating responsibility for their utter failure to act on evidence and prevent this, by putting in place comprehensive border measures, as suggested several months ago by Sage and Independent Sage. And of course subsequent failures to contain transmission in schools, which seem to be important areas of spread of the new variant.
“They are still not following the evidence – as is clear from Sage documents, and have opened up further despite clear warnings from their own advisers and the wider scientific community.”
Haque added that while there was slightly lower uptake of vaccines among disadvantaged communities, some black and minority ethnic communities and even women and younger groups, “it’s important overall to better understand why people are nervous or anxious about the vaccine including whether it’s because it’s difficult for people to access”.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Vaccine hesitancy narrative fuelling divisions in Bolton, says MP | Coronavirus