England’s deputy chief medical officer has expressed concern about the take-up of Covid vaccines in minority ethnic groups as he condemned “nonsense” stories that circulate on social media about jab safety.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam told BBC viewers during a Q&A session that the virus does not discriminate or “care about the colour of your skin”.
He said: “I have concerns that uptake in the minority ethnic groups is not going to be as rapid or as high as in the indigenous white population of the UK.
“And this really concerns me because the big message I have for everyone listening is that this virus just doesn’t care what ethnic background you’re from.
“It just doesn’t care about the colour of your skin or where you live in the world or any of these things, it just cares that you’re a human being, that you don’t have immunity and that you’re susceptible.
“And this is really worrying, it’s a massive concern to people who are older and people who have higher risk conditions. The virus does not discriminate.”
Professor Van-Tam insisted that vaccines were safe for black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, saying that with more than 12 million vaccines administered across the UK “we’re getting to a point where, if we were going to see any kind of safety signal, it would be pretty obvious by now”.
He said polling showed that “vaccine confidence is generally really high in the UK compared to many parts of the world, and the enthusiasm and likelihood that people are going to accept Covid-19 vaccines when called is super-high”.
He added: “People get it that this virus is horrible and kills you – particularly if you’re in a high risk group or elderly group – with ease.”
He said the vast majority of people would prefer to take their vaccine advice from trusted sources rather than “some of the nonsense that is circulated on social media”.
Prof Van-Tam added: “If my central heating system breaks down I’m going to call a heating engineer to explain to me what’s wrong and what needs to be fixed… I’m not going to ask a brain surgeon.
“So why would you go to those kind of sources of information when you have really readily accessible good sources from trusted voices in the NHS? Your own health professionals that you know and see periodically throughout your life?”
The expert medic also condemned “nasty, pernicious” scare stories circulating on social media about the potential impact of Covid vaccines on fertility.
“I have never heard of a vaccine that affects fertility,” he said.
“I was discussing this only yesterday with the chief medical officer (Professor Chris Whitty).
“We recognise that this is a nasty, pernicious scare story, but that’s all it is.
“It is deliberately designed to target people’s worries and their aspirations in life. It’s completely and utterly groundless.”
Prof Jonathan Van-Tam used one of his characteristic analogies to explain why he did not believe the South African variant would become dominant in the UK.
He said the UK Kent variant accounts for more than 90% of cases in this country and there have been fewer than 200 cases of the South African strain.
“If you are running a bath and you have got the hot water tap on and you add in a very small amount of cold water, so the cold tap is running as well but at really a very low volume, your bath water is basically going to remain hot,” he said.
“It’s only if that cold tap was gushing much more than the hot tap, the cold water would take over.
“That’s probably the best analogy I can give you at the moment. There are no signs that South African variant is running at that speed at the moment and therefore I don’t frame it as something that is going to be a dominant issue in the next few months.”
Asked about the study carried out in South Africa which showed low efficacy for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine for mild disease, Prof Van-Tam said it should be interpreted with caution.
“I’m not sure that really tells us about whether the vaccine is still going to be really important in terms of protection against severe disease and protection in an older age group, and they’re the people who are most at risk,” he said.
“It would be a very, very big public health win indeed if all of the vaccines that we’re deploying simply stop people going into hospital, even if they don’t flatten the infection rate. That would be a major, major public health victory.”
On whether mandatory vaccination would tackle low uptake in certain groups, Prof Van-Tam said: “While it sounds very attractive, on the face of it – ‘let’s make something mandatory’ – but what you do is you also create resistance.”
It comes as the Royal College of Physicians is urging people not to share “dangerous” videos claiming steam inhalation can prevent Covid-19.
The BBC reported that alternative “treatments” are being sent on apps such as WhatsApp, as well as being widely available on social media.