Written by on . Pegasus.

Filling the winter vaccination void: examining the behavioural obstacles to success

The news of Pfizer’s milestone COVID-19 vaccine this week has understandably been greeted with a huge wave of positivity – after all, it’s a major leap forward in the journey towards a greater degree of normality. But whether the public will happily take up the vaccine presents interesting behavioural questions.

Using UCL’s COM-B model – which recognises that behaviour is made of an interacting system comprising capability, opportunity and motivation – to analyse uptake of the winter flu vaccine for example, reveals some pivotal considerations.

On the face of it, the barrier isn’t to do with opportunity. The flu vaccine is not only widely available at both pharmacies and GP surgeries – it’s also free for a pretty sizeable proportion of the population.

Lack of knowledge (psychological capability) however, does appear to be a barrier. Many people – even those in at risk groups – underestimate the potential severity of flu (perhaps reinforced by ‘cold’ and ‘flu’ regularly being used interchangeably). On top of this, a fairly significant proportion believe that the flu vaccine is either ineffective or even bad for your health. This, particularly if combined with concern on side effects, means that many view the potential costs of getting vaccinated to outweigh the benefits (reflective motivation). As a result, annual uptake routinely hovers at between 50% and 70%, even for those who are eligible for a free vaccine.

Given the death toll, not to mention the impact on almost every aspect of our daily lives, we could reasonably expect these barriers not to apply when it comes to uptake for a COVID-19 vaccine.

However, research conducted by Pegasus during lockdown suggests that more than a fifth of UK adults (rising to 34% of 25-29 year olds) would not be willing to get a COVID-19 vaccine – far higher than early media reports of growing anti-vaxxer sentiment ever predicted. Research from Kings College London and Ipsos Mori backs this up, indicating that only 53% of the population would be certain or very likely to willingly put themselves forward.

When we drill into the reasons behind this, we see the barriers are very similar to those that inhibit uptake of the winter flu vaccine. The same tendency to underestimate personal risk certainly seems to be at play – nearly a quarter (24%) say they believe the risk of COVID-19 has been overstated, while 28% believe their immune system is strong enough to fight it off. And concerns about vaccine safety are also front of mind. Perhaps reinforced by media coverage about development being fast-tracked, 44% of those who say they wouldn’t be willing to get vaccinated identify side effects as a reason.

This is where using behaviour change theory to inform communications becomes critical. Communications need to address these barriers using the correct behavioural interventions, to ensure the message lands in the right way and convinces enough of us to roll up our sleeves and get vaccinated. Because even in a world ravaged by COVID-19, developing a vaccine and driving uptake are two very different challenges.

Pegasus has produced a series of COVID-19 insight reports examining consumer, patient and HCP attitudes towards the pandemic and the shifting behavioural trends. If you would like to receive a copy get in touch today! [email protected]

is a Senior Strategist in our Strategy & Insights team.