It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter on securing this important debate.
I put on record my thanks to everyone who is working to deliver the vaccination roll-out in Dulwich and West Norwood, from the scientists who have worked to deliver safe and effective vaccines at such a rapid speed, the nurses, doctors and public health teams who have organised the delivery to the volunteers who have made vaccination centres such welcoming, joyful places.
The vaccination programme is our great hope at the end of this difficult year of coronavirus, but it is as true locally as it is globally that none of us is safe until all of us are safe. Coronavirus has already shown itself to be a disease of inequality, thriving on pre-existing ill health, low paid occupations and overcrowded housing, and affecting people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities much more severely.
Previous studies of flu vaccination uptakes have identified ethnicity and deprivation as factors correlating negatively with take-up. It was entirely predictable that the inequalities of covid-19 could be further exacerbated by vaccine hesitancy within communities and occupations that were already at a high risk of serious illness and death. That is what we now see. Last week, more than a quarter of over-80s in Lambeth and Southwark had still not received their first jab, and while 80% of white residents over 65 have now been vaccinated, the rate among African and Caribbean residents was below 45%.
The reasons for hesitancy are complex, but they are not mysterious: well-documented examples of appalling, unethical medical experimentation have led to understandable fear and mistrust in some communities; mild side effects of a jab, which might require a day off work, are a deterrent if there is no guaranteed sick pay; the structural racism that some communities have encountered has eroded their trust in institutions, including the NHS, and peer-to-peer communication of anti-vax misinformation on WhatsApp and Facebook is very potent. All those factors and more may lead people to be hesitant to come forward to take the vaccine.
Addressing people’s deep-seated fears and concerns requires time and resources. I pay tribute to some of the very effective work being done at a local level in Lambeth and Southwark to address vaccine hesitancy, including the leadership being shown by black and Asian councillors. Those efforts are driving up vaccination rates week by week, but our councils urgently need more resources to deliver that work. When the Government recently invited a select list of councils to bid for additional funding to address vaccine hesitancy, Lambeth and Southwark were not on the list. This is, frankly, inexplicable.
The vaccination programme is rightly being celebrated across the country, but it will not have been a complete success as long as disparities remain in the vaccination rate between different communities according to race, income or occupation. If that is allowed to persist, covid-19 will become a disease of inequality to an even greater extent, with some communities enjoying protection, while those in others still fall ill and die. That is not a reality that we can possibly accept, so I urge the Government to take this issue much more seriously and fund our councils properly to combat vaccine hesitancy.