By Barnie Choudhury
At least one in three south Asians, aged 18 or over, is still not fully protected from the Covid virus, our sister publication Eastern Eye can reveal.
Despite the government spearheading a “concerted community-led effort” to persuade minority communities to get vaccinated, the latest figures reveal that about 67 per cent of “Asians or Asian British” have had their first vaccination, while just under 43 per cent have had the second jab.
The NHS said staff had been working hard to address the concerns of south Asian communities.
Even though it had made progress, there was “still more to do”, the NHS said as it urged south Asians to protect themselves fully with two doses.
“If you watch the weekly stats, we’re still seeing a significant improvement and in different communities that is taking time,” Dr Nikita Kanani, director of primary care for NHS England, told Eastern Eye.
“But that’s understandable because it takes time to build vaccine confidence. It’s not just about ease of access, but it is, particularly in Asian communities, about families coming together, remotely or otherwise, to reassure each other that the vaccine is the right step.”
Doctors around the country are still reporting vaccine hesitancy among south Asians getting their second dose.
“We will keep working with communities to make sure that they can access their vaccine,” said Dr Kanani.
“We review the uptake figures daily, but we will review them again more thoroughly on July the 19th. Then we can decide if there’s further support we need to give to communities to take up the vaccine.”
On Friday (June 25) the vaccine deployment minister, Nadhim Zahawi, and London mayor, Sadiq Khan held a summit with practitioners and officials to speed up the rollout of the vaccine.
Over the weekend, anyone over 18 could get a jab without an appointment.
Speaking to Eastern Eye, Khan said, “It’s a big concern to me that there are many people across our city, and indeed across our country, who allow themselves to be open to catching the virus with serious consequences when there is a game changer on the scene, which is the vaccine.
“I understand why some people across the country may be hesitant about receiving the vaccine.
“Our message to them is look, who do you trust? Your GP, your pharmacist, your religious leader, Eastern Eye? Go to your normal methods of receiving messages and ask them what they think about the vaccine.”
He said we had between now and July 19 to “close that gap” and make “as many people as possible receive not just one, but both jabs”.
Zahawi told a Downing Street news conference (June 23) that the government was doing everything possible to reach communities which were vaccine hesitant.
“If you look at the latest data from the Office for National Statistics, the ONS, vaccine hesitancy has halved in the past few months in the black and black-British people since February.
“And it’s halved among Asian and Asian-British people too in the same period. This is real progress, but we know there’s much more to do.”
Asked by Eastern Eye why the government was failing to reach south Asian communities six months after the start of the vaccination programme, the minister responded, “We exchange the best practice that has really worked, whether it’s what Rushanara Ali [MP for Bethnal Green and Bow] has done with the Bangladeshi community in the East London Mosque, to get that community engaged.
“And how do we scale it up? Is it a pop up in Grand Mosque which I visited, then we should be able to repeat that in black churches or in community centres and elsewhere?
“So, what we’re doing is learning from what works, whether it’s teams literally helping people book in, or advertising the actual walk-in clinics where you don’t need to have your NHS number available, you can still get that vaccination.
“And you’re right, it is hard. This is not easy. But I think it’s incumbent on all of us to take what works and really scale it [up] between now and 19th of July, so that we protect as many people [as possible].
“We won’t stop there. We’ll keep going to make sure that everyone who’s had their first dose gets their second dose.”
The Hancock factor
The resignation of Matt Hancock as health secretary on Saturday (June 26) has dented confidence in the government’s rules.
Hancock admitted breaching social distancing guidance by kissing a colleague who was not in his bubble.
Commentators have questioned why the public should obey pandemic rules when government advisers and ministers flouted them.
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, failed to sack Hancock despite the breach.
“I don’t think the resignation has a relationship to the vaccination programme,” said Dr Kanani. “The vaccination programme has continued to deliver all the targets that has been set, as supply has allowed.
“We continue to be on track for the 19 of July to make sure that everybody has been offered the opportunity to take up the vaccination.
“But the reality is, we have to keep reminding our communities that taking up the vaccination is the most important thing that we can do to take us through the pandemic, and back to the lives that we love.”
Johnson quickly replaced Hancock with his former chancellor, Sajid Javid, viewed by Westminster as a “safe pair of hands”.
In his first appearance as the new health secretary (June 28), Javid told MPs that the government was aiming for two-thirds of the country to have had both jabs by July 19, the final easing of lockdown measures in England.
Dr Kanani, who will work closely with Javid, told Eastern Eye that she had three top priorities to share with her new boss.
“First of all, get to understand the NHS. Understand how our staff work, what they’re worried about, and what their experiences have been, particularly through the pandemic.
“Understanding what they are going to need to feel supported, as we support the NHS and wider society to recover.
“Our second priority will be not [just] completing the job on this vaccination programme, but the booster programme into winter, making sure that we have everything we need to deliver that programme, as well as possible, as quickly and as efficiently to make sure that our country is kept as safe as possible.
“Third, it is about how we really bed in the progress we’ve made, addressing health inequalities, what we’ve learned through the Covid vaccination programme.
“We really want to make sure that we maximise that but apply that to other areas as well. So, flu vaccination, health checks and wider healthcare, making sure that everybody has access to high quality health care.”
In May, at an Asian Media Group event, the publishers of Eastern Eye, the London mayor was vocal about his support for community pharmacists.
He praised them for staying open when GP surgeries and health centres had to limit face-to-face patient diagnoses.
So, being the daughter of pharmacists, could community chemists be used to ease the pressure on doctors’ surgeries and hospitals in providing booster jabs?
“We’re working through a range of scenarios depending on what the science tells us about the booster programme,” said the NHS England director. “But I fully expect us to be working with the existing sites and new sites to deliver the booster programme.
“General practice has done a huge amount to really make sure that we maximise uptake in local communities, but community pharmacy has as well, and they are ideally situated often in the heart of communities and deprived communities particularly.
“So, we’ll be looking to work with community pharmacies, even more so as we go through the programme.”
Eastern Eye and its sister paper, Garavi Gujarat, have been telling the story of the pandemic and campaigning to make sure south Asians take the opportunity to get vaccinated.
Dr Kanani recognised our work and told this personal story on national and international television.
“Can I start off by thanking Eastern Eye and Garavi Gujarat,” she said. “My grandfather has dementia, my grandma is hard of hearing.
“They only speak Gujarati and through the pandemic when I couldn’t spend time with them, it was Garavi Gujarat that they would get, and they would see my picture. And they would be able to read about the vaccine, and the hope that it brings.
“So, it is down to organisations like yours who will help us get into homes and communities and remind people it is not just the first dose, but it is that second dose that is all-important.
“We won’t stop, the NHS is absolutely committed to delivering on the vaccination programme in every community.”
London mayor: I’m not gonna to waste my time with anti-vaxxers
For months those against taking the Covid vaccines have been spreading fake news about the vaccine.
They include false claims that the jab contains pork, and so they cannot be taken by Muslims. In WhatsApp messages, south Asians have been told the vaccine will make women infertile. Others simply do not trust the government.
London mayor Sadiq Khan made clear his dislike of “anti-vaxxers”.
“Some of these anti-vaxxers, you can’t have a dialogue with these people so they’re not worth engaging with,” he said.
“I’m not gonna waste my time with them because I may amplify their messages. We don’t want to amplify the lies and the fake news that they have.
“Instead, what I do is I engage with those who are hesitant, and I’d ask them what their concerns are. Then I’d signpost them to people they trust. They trust their GP. They trust their community pharmacist.
“Ask them what their views are in relation to vaccines, and the reality is, these vaccines are robustly tested.”
Mosques, temples and celebrities have been at the forefront of trying to persuade south Asians to protect themselves.
While uptake improving, it still needs to be better among south Asian.
Analysis by Eastern Eye suggests that as of June 20, 67 per cent of Asian or Asian British had had their first vaccination.
Of these, almost 1.5 million or 64 per cent have returned for their second jab.
That means while almost 43 percent have both doses and are considered “fully protected”, almost six in 10 are not.
In the past, Khan told Eastern Eye that the government was not working with him. But the London mayor praised the vaccine minister for the work they are doing together.
“The good news is initially the issue was anti-vaxxers, Covid deniers, and that was one of the reasons for the hesitancy. What we see is that gap narrowing because of the great work taking place across our community.
“What we see now is people who aren’t sure, they need to be reassured. There are legitimate questions that need to be answered, and what we’re trying to do is to answer their questions.”
NHS England told Eastern Eye that it hoped take up would continue to rise because of up-coming jab appointments and the government’s move to open vaccinations to over-18s.
Dr Nikita Kanani is a working GP, as well as a director in NHS England. What have the past 18-months been like for her?
It’s been very mixed. The first half, like many working in the pandemic base, as a frontline clinician, and in my national role, was exhausting and quite upsetting, at times. I’ve worked in hot and cold clinics, seeing people with Covid. And in those early days, it was terrifying because I was not only worrying about the teams I work with, but also my family. My parents are community pharmacists, and my dad was advised to shield early on. So, knowing that my mum was working in the pharmacy day in day out was inexplicably terrifying. But many people had a similar experience.
Then, the second part of the pandemic for me was just before Diwali, when I was asked to come and work on the vaccination programme. Although we experienced the same levels of exhaustion in terms of the hours we needed to work, to be part of this incredible programme has been, well, it’ll be the high point of my life, I’m sure, because every bit of planning we’ve done has meant that we’ve had these incredible uptake rates across communities.
I am so proud to be part of it. So proud to have watched our teams nationally, and regionally and locally, our communities come together. And I think that’s going to do so much for us in the future. I think we’ve learned so much about how to work locally with our community, with our faith leaders. We’ve got this fantastic kind of vaccination equalities tool. I remember seeing a street near us that hadn’t had as much vaccine uptake in the early days as we’d obviously want to see. We went to that local community centre and spoke to the local faith leader, and they helped to set up a clinic, and almost straight away we could see the uptake levels rising.
So, it has been a very challenging year, as it has been for everyone. I still think for me, the brightest stars, for me, have been my children who have been incredible through a scary first part, a lot of time at home with either myself or my husband. They’ve been incredible. It has given us a chance to regroup as a family. But I’m very much looking forward to spending proper time with my grandparents. They still ask me why am I not seeing them as much as I used to? I do try and explain that to them, that I’ll be grateful when I can just spend lots of time with them and get to eat my grandma’s amazing food.