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Vaccine Hesitancy

Volume 797: debated on Monday 1 April 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report in the European Journal of Public Health on 25 February that there is a link between anti-establishment politics and vaccine hesitancy.

My Lords, while there has not been a specific assessment on the link between anti-establishment politics and public confidence in vaccination, we take the issue of misinformation about vaccines extremely seriously and are working across government to tackle this. We are aware of global concerns regarding confidence in vaccinations knowing the protection that they give against deadly diseases, and I am pleased to say that in this country confidence in our vaccines is very high.

I am grateful to the Minister for that positive Answer. She will know that the World Health Organization has declared the anti-vaccine movement as one of the top global health threats for 2019. That follows the tripling of the number of measles across Europe and the sixfold rise in the United States. The paper in the European Journal of Public Health, to which my Question refers, says that there is a direct link between the rise in populist politics and vaccine hesitancy, and cites particularly Greece, Italy and France, and of course one would add the United States as well. There is also much disinformation about vaccines spread on Twitter and other social media. Will the Government make vaccination compulsory as their response to this, as over one-third of countries have done and as we did in Britain in 1853 to combat smallpox? Secondly, what progress have they made in forcing the social media companies to take down this misleading information about vaccines?

I thank the noble Lord for an important question. The UK has one of the most sophisticated vaccination programmes in the world and we constantly guard against threats that may reduce vaccination rates. I am pleased to say that 93% of parents trust NHS staff and advice. The Government recognise the threat posed by disinformation and the upcoming online harms White Paper will set out a new framework for tackling this. PHE’s monitoring data on patient and public trust, however, shows that there is no loss of trust in vaccination, which is to be welcomed. On compulsory vaccination, vaccination programmes in the UK currently operate, like all other medical care, on a system of informed consent. At the moment there is little evidence that compulsion would lead to an increased uptake and so the Government have no plans to introduce such a system but instead intend to work with those who have concerns about vaccination.

My Lords, any distrust of experts sends out a terrible message to all those young people who spend years of study and thousands of pounds becoming experts. Does not our education system fail unless it produces a population who can properly interrogate scientific evidence?

The noble Baroness is right that we should have great confidence in experts and ensure that young people coming through our education system have that same confidence. This is why we can be proud of the high uptake of vaccinations in this country. A number of key components have achieved the high coverage of vaccination. They include national co-ordination of our vaccination programmes, fully trained staff and access to relevant information. We must ensure that this continues so that high level of confidence among parents and patients continues.

My Lords, in the study the noble Lord referred to in his Question, the correlation between populist voting and vaccine hesitancy in the United Kingdom was less than in a number of other European countries, but a study in America demonstrated that what was most likely to lead to a positive response from parents was time spent with paediatricians. That is about finding doctors who have the time to explain the purposes of vaccination and to respond to any parental concerns. Will the Minister look at the extent to which family doctors can have that time incorporated into, for example, their Quality and Outcomes Framework remuneration?

My noble friend is quite right that one of the things that was highlighted in the recent survey about public trust in vaccinations was that 93% of parents trust NHS staff and advice and that 93% of parents remain confident in the immunisation programme. So in order to cover that last percentage, we need to ensure that those parents have access to a GP programme. I therefore encourage parents to speak to their GP or a health professional about vaccinations and to look to credible sources, such as NHS Choices, for their information. I will certainly consider the point raised by my noble friend.

My Lords, by coincidence, tomorrow here in this House I am hosting an event about vaccine policy, specifically about how we improve vaccine coverage in this country because, in spite of what the Minister said, there is room for improvement. Some of us are really quite worried about the decline in some communities and in some parts of the country. Does the Minister agree that much better use of social media is extremely important and necessary if we are to get the positive message about vaccine out there to counter the negative scare stories which do so much harm? Does she agree that more should be made of the intergenerational message? Older people—I refer not simply to Members of this House but to the older population—often have memories of the terrible impact of infectious diseases, whether we are taking about yellow fever, polio or measles. They can tell those who are still young all about them. Surely this will reinforce the importance of the vaccination programme.

The noble Baroness raises a very important point which is that while social media can be used to spread disinformation or misinformation, it can also be used in a positive way to spread the positive value of vaccinations. That is why we want to work with those who have doubts about vaccination to highlight the benefits of vaccinations, the protection that they bring from the very serious diseases which she highlighted and how safe they are. A wealth of information is available online through trusted NHS channels which will enable parents to make well-informed decisions about getting their children vaccinated. I encourage the noble Baroness to highlight in her event next week some of the channels which are available and which we will continue to push.

My Lords, vaccination programmes are the most effective public health measures we can imagine. I have two questions. First, what are the Government doing to ensure that pharmaceutical companies are encouraged to develop new vaccines for diseases? Secondly, I understand that some schools have made it imperative for parents to ensure that their children are vaccinated before they can attend the school. Is this something that we can extend?

The noble Lord raises an important point. There are global shortages of some vaccines on occasion and, when that happens, discussions with manufacturers are ongoing. There is also ongoing work to develop new vaccines. That is part of the life sciences strategy and sector deal, which the noble Lord may be aware of. Public Health England advises clinicians on how to prioritise available vaccines when these situations occur.

I think that I covered the question of compulsory vaccinations and schools that restrict access to vaccinations in my first Answer. Public Health England and clinicians do not believe that this is the appropriate route, as medical care in the UK is delivered by informed consent. Generally, those who are hesitant about vaccinations respond better to people working closely with them to explain the benefits of vaccines and how safe they are; otherwise, the risk is that children will be withdrawn from schooling entirely, which would be a much worse outcome for the children involved.