Barriers to mass vaccination and the role of charities and volunteers

Mass vaccination is a crucial part of our response to coronavirus, and the voluntary sector can play an essential role. Vaccines are the best way to protect people from coronavirus and will save thousands of lives. However, we know that this is a complex process, and many people face barriers to accessing the vaccine. As part of our role in the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership (VCSEP), we worked with Volunteering Matters to gather insights and examples. This focused on identifying these barriers and the solutions charities and volunteers can offer.

Barriers people face in accessing the vaccine

We are grateful to have heard from over 60 organisationsIt is clear people can experience barriers as a result of both systemic inequalities and the health and care system’s response to themThis can include issues experienced due to a person’s:  

  • age
  • gender
  • race
  • disability
  • long-term health condition 
  • caring responsibilities 
  • access to secure housing 
  • immigration status 
  • geographical location 
  • poverty.

The following are some common themes.

  • Communication  people need communications to be clear, accessibleavailable in differing formats and languages, and targeted effectively. Often during the pandemic, this has not been available for all. Access to reliable post and to digital communications platforms is also not universal. 
  • Data and information  some people are less likely to be identified and contacted because of a lack of accurate and up-to-date information in the health service or a lack of information altogetherSome people are less likely to be registered with a GP, including people with insecure housing, refugees and asylum seekers. Many may also be resistant to being identified by mainstream services and providing personal information due to a lack of trust as a result of previous negative experiences. 
  • Travelling to vaccination sites  a lack of available, accessible and affordable transportation to vaccination sites is a key barrierThis is particularly of concern in rural areas, for disabled people and for people who access social care support. 
  • Accessibility of vaccination sites  concerns were raised that many sites might not be accessible for disabled people. While some people may only want to be vaccinated at a trusted health care site, others may find this a barrier and wish to be vaccinated in a neutral or trusted space, such as a pharmacy or a community centre. 
  • Connection of individuals and communities with the health system  many people are not well connected to the health system; others may actively distrust it. This can include those who have experienced racism or prejudice, people with insecure housing, and some gypsy, Roma and traveller communities 
  • Perceived efficacy and risks of vaccination  vaccine hesitancy and potential vaccine refusal is a key concern more prevalent in some communities and groups. Often this is as a result of genuine concern and exposure to mis- and disinformation (including false messaging on the potential efficacy of the vaccine, the use of materials prohibited by religious beliefs, and messages from the wider anti-vaccination movement). Experiences of prejudice and racism by and within the health service understandably increase vaccine hesitancy and refusal.  

It is vital that individuals and communities have access to legitimate and evidence-based advice and guidance, and that people are supported to access the vaccine in line with current prioritisationThe government Vaccine Uptake Plan is designed to acknowledge and address many of these barriers 

Charities and volunteers supporting mass vaccination  

The UK Covid Vaccines Delivery Plan describes how charities and volunteers are being engaged to support the roll out of the vaccination programme. We know there are many ways they can work in partnership to overcome these barriers, including the examples below.

  • Communication  charities have the expertise and infrastructure to develop and share accessible communication (including in differing languages, and accessible formats for disabled people) 
  • Trusting relationships  charities are already a trusted source of information and can use their existing channels to communicate and connect with people who might otherwise be distrustful of or disengaged from mainstream servicesThey can help to fill gaps in service data. 
  • Transport and venues  many charities have accessible transport and venues which people and communities are familiar with.  
  • Volunteers  the voluntary sector is well placed to attract, engage, manage and allocate volunteers to the mass vaccination programme. Organisations like St John’s Ambulance, British Red Cross and Royal Voluntary Service, and local infrastructure including volunteer centres and Councils for Voluntary Service are crucial partners, but organisations of all sizes can support the programme. This includes designing volunteer roles, providing guidance, training and resources.  

It is important for charities to identify how they can work with and support their communities to access the vaccine, many are already offering support. This will help to address and overcome the barriers people face, enabling communities to play their part in ensuring that we collectively tackle the virus. You can keep up to date with our coronavirus information and guidance.

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Catherine Goodall is a senior policy officer at NCVO, working primarily on public services policy. She has a background in research and practice, working with local authorities and universities to drive service improvement and facilitating participatory action research.

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