Black and ethnic minority people are being put at risk by the UK’s ‘colour-blind’ Covid vaccination strategy, experts warned today.
The mammoth operation has prioritised Brits by age after mountains of research and data showed those who are older are more at risk of dying from the virus.
But a group of top medics, including a top NHS race official, claims ministers should have focused on ethnic minorities after the over-70s got their first dose.
Studies show Covid death rates are highest in BAME communities, which experts say is because ethnic minorities are more likely to get infected in the first place because they live in deprived areas, use public transport, work public-facing jobs and live in overcrowded and multi-generational homes.
The Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI), which designed the jabs priority list, said, however, that age was the single-biggest risk factor.
But Professor Azeem Majeed, a primary care expert from Imperial College London, warned the move had ‘disregarded’ BAME communities.
‘In the first phase of the Covid vaccination programme, large numbers of low-risk people were vaccinated such as NHS and university staff who were not working in patient-facing roles’, he told MailOnline.
‘These vaccine recipients would have been at much lower risk of severe disease and death than some other groups but were vaccinated ahead of them.’
Leading medics have said ministers should have focused on ethnic minorities after jabbing the over-70s. Pictured above is a woman being vaccinated in Darlington on March 1
Professor Azeem Majeed, a primary care expert at Imperial College London, said BAME communities should have been prioritised after the over-70s got their first dose
Writing in the journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, scientists today called on ministers to prioritise jabs for BAME communities.
They said the drive was disregarding ‘the unequal impact of the pandemic on minority ethnic groups’ and widening racial inequalities in the UK.
They added this could be triggering higher levels of vaccine hesitancy in the groups, possibly because they feel let down by the roll out.
‘The invisibility of these vulnerable groups from the priority list and the worsening healthcare inequities are putting ethnic minorities at a significantly higher risk of Covid-19 illness and death,’ the authors wrote.
‘The UK’s colour-blind vaccination model disregards the unequal impact of the pandemic on minority ethnic groups, rendering it an enabler of structures that are known to systematically disadvantage BAME communities.’
Professor Majeed, the lead author, claimed that in order to control the pandemic, ministers need to target ethnic minorities specifically to get them protected.
Failure to do this, he said, could result in the ‘devastating impacts lasting far beyond the end of the pandemic’.
Dr Habib Naqvi, director of the NHS Race and Health Observatory, said: ‘We have sadly witnessed the consequence of not acting on early evidence presented into Covid ethnicity and health inequalities.
‘The impact of the virus on BME communities has been disproportionate and bleak.
‘Now is the time to urgently learn from recent lessons, and act on improved granular data, including a clear focus on localised approaches with resources and support which both engage and tackle lower levels of trust and confidence in the vaccine programme across diverse communities.’
An Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey published this week revealed nearly half of black people in the UK are still hesitant about receiving the Covid vaccine.
For comparison, 16 to 18 per cent of those in other ethnic minority groups and just eight per cent of those in white communities were concerned about the jabs.
The most common reasons for being hesitant towards vaccines, the ONS said, were concerns over side effects, possible long-term effects, or about how well it works.
Ministers have already tried to encourage BAME communities to take the Covid jab, hiring a PR firm to help clamp down on misinformation and using famous faces such as Denise Lewis and Moeen Ali to address cultural concerns in a TV advert.
WHY ARE PEOPLE WORRIED ABOUT VACCINES?
One reason some people are fearful of having a vaccine is the risk of side effects.
Side effects are normal because the vaccines trigger the immune system, which is how they work, and the immune system is usually what causes symptoms of illness.
Things like fever, aches, headache and tiredness are all normal signs that the immune system is reacting to something and are often caused jabs but are not serious. They tend to clear up by themselves within days, and can be controlled with drugs like paracetamol and ibuprofen.
A tiny proportion of people suffer more severe side effects, such as going into shock or having a severe allergic reaction, but this is extremely rare and usually only happens in people with a history of bad reactions.
Everybody who receives a jab on the NHS is monitored for at least 15 minutes to make sure they don’t have a bad reaction, and vaccination teams have treatments on hand to help if this happens.
Part of the reason for young women being concerned is understood to be myths about the vaccine affecting fertility or the health of unborn babies.
Although vaccines are not recommended for pregnant women, this is only because they have not been trialled on them specifically – the same reason children are not eligible for the jabs.
There is no evidence to suggest the vaccine would be capable of harming an unborn child – and certainly not any more than the real coronavirus – but it is not being given to pregnant women out of caution.
And on long-term effects on fertility, Professor Van-Tam said no vaccine has ever led to infertility and there was no reason the Covid ones would do so.
ONLINE CONSPIRACY THEORIES
Online conspiracy theories also claim that jabs have tracking microchips in them, contain animal products or use cells from human flesh – none of which are true.
Experts have called for spreading lies about vaccines online to be criminalised, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it ‘total nonsense’.
Officials have tried hard to debunk conspiracy theories and myths spreading about the jabs online – including that they change people’s DNA, contain microchips, make people infertile or aren’t real vaccines – none of which are true.
The NHS has also released a ‘blueprint’ against vaccine hesitancy, which sees doctors and nurses talk about the jabs to those that have concerns alongside faith and community leaders.
Although the pandemic has killed BAME at a higher rate than white people in the UK, scientists are not convinced this is solely due to race and not just living conditions.
An official report found last month that ethnic minority Britons may only face a higher risk of dying of Covid because they’re more likely to catch it, not because of genetic differences.
The review by Number 10’s Race Disparity Unit compared death rates between white people and ethnic minorities and found the gap had narrowed in the second wave.
It suggested that higher rates of death among black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) groups was ‘largely a result of higher infection rates for some ethnic groups’.
The risk of death had declined among black people to make it comparable to white people in the second wave, the report said, although it remained higher among Bangladeshi and Pakistani people.
Because of this the review said: ‘Ethnic minorities should not be considered a single group that faces similar risk factors in relation to Covid.’
The finding may offer a clue to why officials have decided against prioritising minority groups over white people for vaccines.
It found inequalities were driven by risk of infection, ‘as opposed to ethnicity itself being a risk factor for severe illness or death’.
A range of social, financial and geographical factors were to blame for more BAME Brits getting infected per population than whites, the report said.
Ethnic minority communities are statistically more likely to be poorer, to live in inner cities and to have health problems than white people, research has found.
Living in densely populated areas, staying in overcrowded and multi-generational homes and working public-facing jobs were cited as risk factors for getting infected with coronavirus.
Most of the increased risk factors can be linked back to high levels of deprivation in BAME communities, the report found.
Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, who heads the disparity unit, said the findings should not take away from the fact BAME Brits are ‘still particularly vulnerable’ to Covid.
She said: ‘Our response will continue to be driven by the latest evidence and data and targeted at those who are most at risk.
‘There is light at the end of the tunnel, and as the vaccine rollout continues, I urge everyone who is offered one to take the opportunity, to protect themselves, their family, and their community.’