Westminster has the UK’s lowest Covid jab uptake despite being in the Government’s own backyard

Louis Dillon hasn’t had a single Covid jab. The 20-year-old, who helps run a market stall on Tachbrook Street in Westminster, says he’s not an anti-vaxxer but doesn’t think he needs any jabs. “All my friends who have had the vaccine have still got Covid”, he says, packing oranges away into the back of a truck one cold January afternoon. “I’ve done my research.

I’m young, I’m healthy. I’m not getting them. Nothing will change my mind.”

Louis’ market stall is a 15 minute walk away from the House of Commons, over the Vauxhall Bridge Road. Westminster has the lowest vaccination rate of any region in the country. Just 61 per cent of people over the age of 12 in the area have received a first dose of a Covid vaccine, according to figures from the UK Health Security Agency.

That means more than 106,000 eligible people still have not come forward for their first dose. Meanwhile, fewer than 55 per cent have received their second dose — equivalent to around 124,000 people in the region eligible for a follow-up jab. The figures are far lower than the UK average.

Around 91 per cent of over-12s in the country have already had at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, and around 83 per cent have had two. The Government has rolled out a major media blitz over the past few months to encourage Brits to get their booster jab, with the Prime Minister insisting that it remains the best protection against Omicron. Last week, ministers launched an awareness campaign on social media app Snapchat in a bid to whip up youngsters into getting their booster.

But people like Louis, who lives a stone’s throw away from Westminster, still haven’t been convinced to get their first Covid vaccine. If the Government has spent the last year urging people to get jabbed and discussing the benefits of the vaccine, it must have skipped its own backyard. —

There’s no queue outside the Abbey Centre pop-up vaccine clinic on Great Smith Street when I visit. Antonio, who volunteers there some days, says demand has died down since a busy festive period, with people rushing to get jabbed in the run-up to Christmas. “The queues were all the way up to there,” he says, gesturing towards the stretch of road outside Westminster Abbey. Westminster Council has rallied efforts to drive up vaccination rates over the past few months, after a council spokesperson described uptake in the region as a “grave concern” last summer.

Council leader Rachael Robathan even wrote to Health Secretary Sajid Javid in July asking the Department of Health to urgently intervene with the borough’s vaccine programme. Since then, the council has been “working extensively” with the NHS to encourage residents to get their vaccines, a spokesperson says. The area, which covers a 27km2 stretch from Big Ben to Abbey Road, has launched a special vaccine bus and pop-up jab centres part of a major drive “to bring vaccines directly into our communities”.

The efforts seem to have worked in persuading residents like Mohammed Iqbal, 41, to get their first jab after months of uncertainty. Mohammed, who works at a newsagent just off Strutton Ground in Westminster, says that until recently he had not been convinced that the vaccines were worth getting. “But then the new variant came,” he says, sitting opposite a spread of newspapers bearing headlines about ‘Novax Djokovic’. “I was quite scared for me and my family because people were saying it was spreading more quickly.”

A fraught national mood about Omicron in the run-up to Christmas pushed Mohammed into getting his first vaccine three weeks ago, and he says he now feels a slight sense of relief. “But I still know lots of people who won’t get it,” he adds. “I speak good English. There were no language problems for me personally, but other people can’t speak it so well.

I think the message might not get [to] them.” Local leaders in Westminster have said that a younger, more diverse, and more economically divided population in London is to partially blame for the sluggish vaccine uptake. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, tried to explain away the low uptake last summer by explaining that the high proportion of young people in the city had only just become eligible for vaccines, insisting that the figure would rocket into the autumn.

But it didn’t. And it still isn’t growing much. In fact, first dose uptake in Westminster climbed just 0.2 per cent over the past week.

Mr Khan later clarified that vaccine uptake in London will always lag behind other areas in Britain because its population is more mobile, more diverse, and more transient. Westminster and its surrounding boroughs have a high number of students, foreign nationals and empty homes, but also some of the biggest wealth inequality of anywhere in the UK. In Westminster, almost 42 per cent of children and young people under 20 are living in poverty, according to the Child Poverty Action Group, compared with 31 per cent for the UK at large.

Attempts to boost vaccine uptake in the area have mostly focused on practical measures, such as expanding walk-in centres and translating Covid information into different languages. But they’re only part of the solution, says John Drury, professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex. Except for a small minority like Mohammed who were already teetering on the edge of getting vaccinated, practical measures intended to boost vaccine uptake might largely preach to the converted.

At the same time, Professor Dury explains, demographic factors like age, deprivation and ethnic minority, often correlate with a general sense of mistrust in authorities, which in itself is a major driver for vaccine hesitancy. “These sorts of beliefs — whether they’re vaccine hesitancy or conspiracy theories — often come out of a lack of trust in those in charge of society.,” he says, speaking in a personal capacity. But the chaos of current politics might have exacerbated pre existing scepticism, he adds.

“When we talk about whether we’re ticking boxes in terms of vaccination, we need to ask: ‘Are trusted sources getting through?’ If it’s hesitancy that’s preventing people from getting the vaccine, then it might be that there’s too much [in discussions about Covid] that’s linked to this Government. “This Government is a bit toxic now — it’s not so trusted. Maybe information about the vaccine needs to come from more trusted sources.”

Professor Drury adds that Government communication about the vaccine being the route out of the pandemic might have, ironically, lulled certain groups into a false sense of security regarding immunity. “‘The vaccine programme has always been promoted as the route out of all of this, at the cost of other measures,” he says. “You’ve got a subtext that we are safe now, the risk is lower — you speak to people saying ‘well we’re less likely to die now’. It’s a paradox in a way, because it’s the vaccination programme that’s got us there.”

Meanwhile, “there’s another group of people who are saying ‘we don’t need to be vaccinated, what’s the point because people are getting infected when they’ve been vaccinated’. So for them, the vaccine programme is overpromised,” he adds. Medical chiefs have warned recently that intensive care beds are increasingly being filled with the unvaccinated.

Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer said earlier this month that he was “saddened” at the proportion of unjabbed people filling Covid wards, warning that efforts must be ramped up to counter dangerous misinformation about the jab online. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister came out guns blazing last week against the online “mumbo jumbo” of antivaxxers. “You’ve got people out there spouting complete nonsense about vaccination,” he said, while visiting a vaccine centre in Northampton. “They are totally wrong and I think it is time that I, the Government, call them out on what they are doing.

It is absolutely wrong, it is totally counterproductive, and the stuff they’re putting on social media is completely mumbo jumbo.” But experts have warned that conflating the unvaccinated with the anti-vaxx movement risks glossing over the many nuanced reasons why people are failing to come forward for the jab. “Not everybody turning down the jab is an antivaxxer,” says Dr Talia Isaacs, professor of applied linguistics at UCL, who recently oversaw a study into the main factors influencing vaccine uptake in ethnic minority groups.

“I think it is disparaging to put all of those people into the same basket. Everybody thinks this is about the vaccine campaign, but it’s much bigger than that because, there have been years of inequalities in cities like London, which of course have been exacerbated by Covid. “There’s a wider political terrain where you have hostile policies about immigration, about injustices like Windrush and Grenfell tower, and they all contribute to this lack of trust.

And that might be reasonably said to be affecting vaccine uptake.” But it will take more than practical measures such as vaccine buses and pop-up jab centres to tackle the kinds of societal differences that might be causing vaccine hesitancy in areas such as Westminster, says Dr Isaacs. London mayor Mr Khan told i that local authorities will continue to work with the NHS to “to help reach Londoners, answer their questions and make the vaccine as accessible as possible to them”.

But as experts have noted, practical measures alone won’t cut it in efforts to improve vaccine uptake among the residents of Westminster and its surrounding boroughs. Westminster has acted as the stage for several anti-vaxx protests since the start of the pandemic, with followers of the movement set to return to Parliament Square on Saturday to protest against increasing vaccination drives. But the reality behind its symbol as the beating heart of politics is that it is also one of the UK’s most multicultural, diverse, and hugely economically divided areas.

Ministers in Westminster have twin vaccine problems in their hands — both of them in their own backyard.