As the Government continues to push vaccination as a key weapon in defeating the COVID-19 virus, here in Luton – a culturally diverse town of more than 130 languages and dialects – we have worked hard to overcome vaccine hesitancy in many of our more reluctant communities. Data shows that vaccination rates in some of our Black, Asian and White European population are the lowest in the town.
Many of these groups that have low vaccine take up rates don’t access our main communications channels. Reasons for this include a mistrust of Government or authority, language barriers or lack of involvement in community social media groups. This underlines the importance of working with people of influence in the various communities, to both share and shape the messages.
In seeking to boost numbers we chose to adopt a multi-layered approach. As well as engaging with faith and community leaders we established a group of 150 COVID champions – individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds and social reach, including teachers, pub landlords, sports coaches, charity workers and local business leaders – who can relay information to their existing networks. This group meet on a fortnightly basis and provide useful and regular feedback on the effectiveness and reach of our messages.
In addition we used targeted advertising aimed at those groups deemed most reluctant to get vaccinated. We hold various community panels featuring health experts from the different communities. These are hosted by respected authority figures and tackled issues such as myths around vaccines. Sessions are recorded and participants encouraged to circulate more widely.
Many of Luton’s councillors are themselves from Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority communities. All members are kept up to date with weekly briefings to ensure they are in a position to refute misinformation in their communities and at the same time spread key messages.
They work hard to support communication by disseminating images of themselves being vaccinated, for example. Cllr Maria Lovell, who was Luton’s mayor at the time, was filmed when it was her turn to be vaccinated. Her hard work among the African community in Luton throughout the pandemic was acknowledged by the award of an MBE in the recent Queen’s Honours list. This is just one example of the way councillors are proactive in encouraging their communities.
Young people are also seen to be vital in the overall engagement process: the overwhelming majority in the town read and speak English; large numbers live with elderly parents or grandparents; they share ‘traditional values’ of care and respect for older generations that are encouraged by their background faiths.
Important though this demographic was, we soon discovered that many ‘Millenials’ and ‘Gen Z’ were not picking up on messaging. Reasons for this include: fatigue regarding COVID-related news; minimal connection with the council; a feeling they were often blamed by the population at large for irresponsible behaviour; unease at feeling they were being ‘talked down to’ and cringing at some of the national campaigns meant a different approach was needed if we were to engage meaningfully with this age range and in so doing, gain wider traction within their communities.
Working alongside the Council Advertising Network and Westco we targeted websites that young people visit, and in one particular six-week period we gained 3.5 million advert impressions and accumulated 163,000 clicks, likes, comments and shares. Using a live dashboard we were able to identify what wasn’t effective and adapt accordingly. The overall cost of the campaign worked out as less than 9p per interaction, but more importantly provided us with useful ideas for the next phase of the campaign.
It became clear that even with improved awareness we were still not seeing a strong enough increase in uptake among certain communities. Individuals were still not booking vaccine appointments through the NHS system. In order to increase take up of jabs we held two weekends of ‘pop-up’ clinics where eligible people could simply turn up without identification or paperwork to receive their vaccine. To increase accessibility, locations such as places of worship, supermarkets, parks and high visitation rate shopping areas were specifically chosen.
As many of the more hesitant communities have a strong sense of family, they were encouraged to attend with their relatives so they could participate in groups and gain a sense of protecting and caring for each other. More than 5,000 people made use of this situation – a significant number of those eligible within the town.
Ensuring the highest possible levels of vaccine uptake remains a challenge. Hesitancy still exists within Luton and we need more support to meet the specific challenges of our communities. Investing money, time and expertise in engaging thoroughly with hard to reach people absorbs resources, but our experiences have taught us of their long-term effectiveness.
We continue to call upon the Government to learn from places such as Luton and provide us with the help we desperately need to bounce back from the ravages the pandemic has inflicted on our town.
Cllr Khtija Malik is portfolio holder for public health at Luton BC