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Scott Morrison’s early talk of ‘mandatory’ Covid vaccine may drive hesitancy, experts warn | Australia news

Experts have warned Scott Morrison’s discussion of a “mandatory” Covid-19 vaccine is pre-emptive and risks driving hesitant Australians away.

The prime minister announced on Wednesday that a letter of intent had been signed with the British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca to supply Australians with the University of Oxford Covid-19 vaccine if it clears clinical trials.

Asked whether the vaccine – if it is proven safe and effective – would be mandatory, Morrison said he expected so.

“I would expect it to be as mandatory as you can possibly make,” Morrison told 3AW. “There are always exemptions for any vaccine on medical grounds, but that should be the only basis. I mean, we’re talking about a pandemic that has destroyed the global economy and taken the lives of hundreds of thousands all around the world and over 430 Australians here.

“So, you know, we need the most extensive and comprehensive response to this to get Australia back to normal.”

At a later press conference, Morrison talked up his credentials as the “the social services minister that introduced no jab, no play” – a coercive strategy to improve childhood vaccination – but did not outline what coercive measures would be used to make a Covid-19 vaccine mandatory, if any.

The acting chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, suggested the vaccine would be voluntary at first, saying: “Of course, the first will be a voluntary call for people and I’m sure there will be long queues – socially distanced, of course – for this vaccine. It will be incredibly welcomed by many.”

Vaccine hesitancy – defined by the World Health Organization as the “delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccination services” – has been identified as a problem in 90% of countries.

The WHO included hesitancy in its top 10 threats to global health last year, and the body’s vaccines advisory group says it is driven by a range of complex factors, including complacency, inconvenience in accessing vaccines, and a lack of confidence.

One of Australia’s leading researchers on vaccine hesitancy and refusal, Julie Leask, of the University of Sydney and the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, says pre-emptive discussion of a “mandatory” vaccine is dangerous.

“It concerns me quite a lot to see this being talked about before we even have a vaccine, and before we even know what that vaccine looks like, and before we have even attempted to address the priority groups,” Leask told the Guardian.

“However, I’m not surprised that this topic comes up … it plays well politically to talk up using coercive measures to get people to vaccinate their children.

“But it’s really important with this disease and this vaccine, that we get this discussion right, we can’t be playing political games with discussion about how we get high coverage of a Covid-19 vaccine. We need to be as reasonable and careful as we possibly can.”

The consequences of discussing coercive measures this early were potentially serious, Leask said.

She said the public has not had the chance to build up knowledge about the vaccine candidate or develop trust in its safety and efficacy. That risked driving people away from any future vaccine.

“It will only be produced and distributed if we have trials that show it has an acceptable safety and effectiveness profile, that’s important, but the public haven’t even had a chance to know what it looks like and develop trust in the vaccine based on information about it,” she said.

“So if you jump to talk of coercive measures, you can risk getting what we call ‘reactants’, which is a kind of anger that you see when you talk up people having to do something before you’ve even had a go at using all the other measures available to do something, if indeed it’s worth them doing it, and it’s effective to do that.

“Those people who are a bit ambivalent, if they’re then being told ‘by the way you will have to have this vaccine’ … then you risk pushing [more] people away from the vaccine than you might have otherwise done.”

Efforts to combat vaccine hesitancy are complex and multifaceted. A paper in the Lancet last year said the advice of doctors had been shown to be the most important predictor of vaccine acceptance, making it crucial that health workers were given the tools and resources they needed to communicate with patients.

Governments and health policymakers also had a critical role to play, the paper said, including through public education, the promotion of vaccination, and policies that reduce public health risks associated with hesitancy.

The US’s Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, has identified online misinformation as a critical issue in vaccine hesitancy.

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