Labour has written to health secretary Sajid Javid to express concern over the current state of England’s Covid vaccination programme and call upon the government “to go further” in accelerating the rollout of doses among children, young people and pregnant women.
In a letter shared with The Independent, Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said “this is no time for ministers to be complacent” over what has been achieved and warned “it is clear that the job of protecting the public is not yet done”, with infection rates once again returning to the peak seen at the height of the second wave.
Nearly 50 local authorities across England – from London to Liverpool to Leicester – have offered a single dose to just over half of all 18 to 29-year-olds in their area, according to data up to 30 September. In total, 2,035,320 people from this age group have yet to receive a first jab.
In other parts of the country, primarily in the capital, up to 30 per cent of adults aged 50 and over were unvaccinated by the end of last month, with stark disparities in coverage and infection rates between different ethnicity groups.
Findings from Imperial College London’s React study, published earlier this week, showed that national cases are almost twice as high among people of Black ethnicity (1.41 per cent) versus those of white ethnicity (0.78 per cent).
The rollout of doses among young children is similarly continuing to lag. Up to 13 October, around 13 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds had been vaccinated, compared to more than 40 per cent of this age group in Scotland.
This comes amid surging case rates in secondary schools pupils, one in 12 of whom were infected in the week ending 9 October, according to the Office for National Statistics.
“At the current rate of rollout in schools it will take months for all adolescents to be vaccinated,” said Mr Ashworth in his letter to the health secretary. “Can you explain why this programme is running so slowly?”
He also accused his counterpart of failing to address “confusion and misinformation” around the vaccination of pregnant women, who have been slower to get jabbed than other groups.
The consequences of this hesitancy were laid bare in new data released by the NHS earlier this week, showing that nearly 20 per cent of the most critically ill Covid patients in hospital are unvaccinated pregnant women.
“We need to have a robust public health communication strategy in place, focused on vulnerable groups including mothers to be, to tackle dangerous misinformation,” Mr Ashworth wrote. “Can you assure MPs that pregnant women have not been forgotten about?”
Research shows that there is no heightened risk from vaccination to pregnant women and their babies.
The slow vaccine uptake among 18 to 29-year-olds is most acute in Birmingham and the London boroughs of Waltham Forest, Camden and Barking and Dagenham, where half of this cohort were unvaccinated up to 30 September. Other local authorities with coverage rates under 60 per cent include Liverpool, Peterborough, Manchester and Nottingham.
“Such low coverage rates amongst those under 30 are simply not good enough,” the shadow health secretary said.
Health officials are particularly concerned over the lack of vaccine coverage in pockets of the over-50s population, which is more vulnerable to severe disease and hospitalisation than younger cohorts.
Up to 30 September, more than 25 per cent of peopled aged 50 and over hadn’t come forward for a first dose in Westminster, Lambeth, and Hammersmith and Fulham. Outside of the capital, this figure stands at 19 per cent in Manchester, 16 per cent in Birmingham and 15 per cent in Oxford.
Evelyn Akoto, the council lead for health and wellbeing in Southwark, where 73 per cent of over-50s have been fully vaccinated, said it was “not a surprise” that uptake has been lower in the borough compared to other areas of England.
“We know that among some of our communities, especially our Black and ethnic minority communities, there’s an ongoing lack of trust in the establishment and fearfulness of vaccine programmes that predates Covid,” she said. “The concerns are complex, and they vary by ethnicity.”
She said highly diverse communities in the borough, such as Peckham, have been targeted by anti-vaxxers who have attempted to distribute misinformation among ethnic minority groups.
While 88 per cent of white people in Southwark have had two doses, just 58 per cent of Black Caribbean people are fully vaccinated, said Ms Akoto, adding that the council has been holding meetings with different communities, faith leaders and age groups to encourage uptake. Volunteers have also visited more 7,000 households in the borough to promote the vaccines.
The Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank, said lingering distrust towards the vaccine programme among ethnicity minority groups was linked to “alienation brought on by historic policy failures, such as stop and search.”
CEO Dr Halima Begum added: “Access to the vaccine is presumed as a given. But what people don’t see is that unequal access to health services have led to less take-up of health services in deprived communities and areas across the UK.”
Labour also raised questions of the UK’s flu vaccine supply after the delivery of doses were hit by supplies last month due to the ongoing shortage of lorry drivers. “Can you give a cast-iron guarantee today that adequate supplies are in place, and outline your strategy to ensure supply-chain disruption does not delay the rollout?” Mr Ashworth asked.
Concluding his letter, he wrote: “I urge you to take action now and do everything possible to drive up vaccination rates across all groups and in all areas, to ensure nobody is left behind in the fight against these viruses”.
A government spokesperson said: “Our vaccination programme continues to be a phenomenal success, with almost 80 per cent of people aged 12 and over in the UK double jabbed – and we are doing everything we can to keep encouraging more people to come forward.”
“Vaccines save lives and not only is our booster programme under way with three million third doses given in England alone, but our largest ever flu campaign has also launched as we seek to protect as many people as possible this winter.”