At this point it’s been repeated far too many times that the Government must be clear and transparent when it comes to rolling out a vaccine to heal any distrust in public health – but this is already not happening.
In the past 24 hours, two conflicting sentiments on vaccine passports from the Government have circulated, providing fertile ground for misinformation to spread.
Michael Gove told Sky News the government is not planning to issue “vaccine passports” to people who have had a coronavirus jab, barely 24 hours after the newly appointed vaccines minister said it was looking at the technology.
His comments come a day after Nadhim Zahawi, who was appointed on Saturday to oversee the jab rollout, suggested that customers who had turned down the jab could be refused entry to pubs, restaurants and other places.
The impact of indecisiveness
The original suggestion that people could be refused entry and turned away from hospitality and sports venues on the basis of not being vaccinated appeared in several papers and news websites and naturally provoked a reaction.
Gove’s denial that there would be “vaccine passports” was likely a result of Government indecision on the measure as it is far too early to make such plans, but if there was a time for thinking aloud, now isn’t it.
Vaccine passports have been a trigger among anti-vaccine and conspiracy theorists throughout the pandemic, being used as an easy example of the Government using Covid-19 to enact its agenda and quash free will.
Earlier this month, a fake image purporting that people would need a vaccine passport to access social welfare was circulating on Facebook, which The Journal debunked, while claims in July a vaccine would be mandatory in the UK were proven to be false by FullFact. These claims still grip users online and continue to spread without the help of MPs or the Cabinet.
Ahead of a vaccine roll out, it’s this kind of easily avoided confusion online that could make a difference between people choosing to immunise themselves and their family, or not.
Public figures should be resolute and united in their messaging, so as to not fan the flames of distrust and fear.
Anti-vaccine groups spreading the story
The damage was done however, and Mr Zahawi’s comments are still being shared now as fact, despite Gove’s u-turn a day later.
The original story was shared in anti-vaccine and conspiracy groups including WeAreVaxxed, Vote 4 Nobody, Nobody Tells the Truth and Outlaw Mandatory Vaccination, Beat Propaganda & Reveal the Truth without the update.
Analysis on Crowdtangle shows that on the day of the story, there were 14.2 thousand interactions with it on Facebook, and forecasts it will be 23 thousand today, despite the retraction.
“At present we do not have an authorised vaccine and we do not know if a vaccine will prevent transmission of the disease,” a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told i.
“Should a vaccine pass the strict safety and effectiveness standards of the medicines regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), then it will be authorised for use across the UK and offered first to those groups most at risk and this will allow us to see what impact a vaccine has on the spread of the virus.
“Then we will have the information needed to decide the next steps to a path back to normality.”
Politicians need to do better
Mr Gove’s comments would have ideally set the record straight and stopped claims of vaccine passports circulating, but the first story provides evidence for claims that had already been present online.
Professor Sergio Della Sala, a neuroscientist at Edinburgh University, an expert in anti-vaccine beliefs and misinformation, previously told i that the key to effectively promoting this vaccine is transparency of information. “People will need to be told the truth, together with the complexity of the truth”, he said.
Data should be made available to people. It should be easy to understand and not obviously simplified, he explained. “Play games and we are doomed.”
The importance of this shouldn’t be underestimated. Vaccine passports are an example of how vaccine misinformation is often impossible to control once it’s out, especially when it comes from a trusted source.
Politicians have to do better; the internet is already awash with dangerous information and they cannot be the ones adding to it.