'It's not working': Calls for campaign to counter vaccine hesitancy as PM says focus is on older Australians

The federal government is facing calls to develop a stronger campaign to counter vaccine hesitancy in the community.

The Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne is one of three Victorian mass COVID-19 vaccination hubs.

The Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne is one of three Victorian mass COVID-19 vaccination hubs. Source: AAP

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the government will be focusing on encouraging Australians aged 50 and over to get vaccinated, rebuffing calls for a more targeted communications campaign to counter vaccine hesitancy.

"We'll continue to have the conversation with the rest of the population about their concerns that they may have and the best place to have that discussion is with your GP," he said. 


He said the government's $40 million spend on advertising is focusing on "those who are happy" to get vaccinated. He flagged that older Australians - aged over 50 and 70 - will be the focus of a new media campaign encouraging vaccinations to be launched in coming weeks.

According to the government's weekly updates, there have been 3.2 million vaccinations completed across Australia since 22 February. 

That equates to just eight per cent of the 40 million doses needed to vaccinate all required Australians with two shots. 

At the current rate of some 408,000 doses a week, Australia's adult population of 20 million is set to be vaccinated in early February 2023. 

Mr Morrison told Radio 3AW in Melbourne that the supply of Pfizer vaccines into the country is proceeding on schedule.

"Towards the end of the year there will be a big ramp up because that’s when all the supplies come in," he said.

Calls for revamped campaign

Epidemiologists, public health communication experts and policy analysts have raised concerns about whether the current advertising campaign by the federal government is effective. 

A recent survey by research company Resolve Strategic found that 15 per cent of Australian adults were "not at all likely" to get vaccinated in coming months, and 14 per cent were "not very likely". 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government is aiming to vaccinate two-thirds of the population, while New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she is planning on a state goal of between 70 and 80 per cent. 

The director of the health program at Grattan Institute, Stephen Duckett, said the current pace of vaccination and the levels of vaccine hesitancy in the community suggested the government's COVID-19 communication strategy "is not working". 

"You can actually see in the numbers that it is not working," he told SBS News. 

"This is not a sustainable position. We have actually got to do something different.

"The government first of all has to recognise that something has to change."

He said a three-pronged approach should be considered, including more effective targeting of the concerns in migrant and refugee communities

"The Commonwealth government needs to talk to the states and say: 'look, there are some communities - culturally and linguistically diverse communities - where there are high levels of misinformation, high levels of hesitancy. 

NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant receives the AstraZeneca vaccine at St George Hospital in Kogarah, Sydney on 10 March 2021.
NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant receives the AstraZeneca vaccine at St George Hospital in Kogarah, Sydney on 10 March 2021. Source: AAP

"'We want you to work with those communities - with local trusted leaders to actually to get vaccinated'."

Mr Duckett said the other prongs of the strategy should include: getting on top of the logistical issues of the rollout, and looking at more effective messaging to the broader population.

"There is a big population out there who are not being vaccinated. We actually want them to be vaccinated - and we have got to overcome the misinformation about the risks of AstraZeneca and so on.

"So that people actually change their reported behaviour and actually go and get vaccinated."

Push for community vaccine champions to front campaign

UNSW associate professor Dr Holly Seale, who is researching public and professional perceptions and behaviours relating to COVID-19, said the government's public health campaign needs to go beyond the bare mechanics of the rollout. 

"We know that is not enough to motivate people to go and get vaccinated. We also need to draw on other elements: emotion; other things that will motivate people to get the vaccine, other than just facts.

"There is a need to evolve the campaign now to try and get some warmth into it. To get some personal stories maybe. And others are calling for - maybe to get some humour into it."

WA Premier Mark McGowan and WA Health Minister Roger Cook received their first dose of the COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccination in Perth on 2 May 2021.
WA Premier Mark McGowan and WA Health Minister Roger Cook received their first dose of the COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccination in Perth on 2 May 2021. Source: AAP

Dr Seale is also proposing that a much greater use is made of community champions and advocates promoting vaccine uptake. 

"Vaccination ambassadors is nothing new. We have seen in countries around the world, traditionally in lower resource settings where community elders and leaders would get out there with song and dance and the need to get vaccinated - where community health workers would talk about it in-language.

"It is not just celebrities getting vaccinated. They will play a role and for some people that may be great to see celebrities that you normally see on telly, but that is not relevant for everybody.

"So instead we need to have a broad stroke of ambassadors working here. They include faith-based leaders, teachers, people who work in childcare centres. They need to be of varying ages, different genders and people who speak to you and share your values and language.

"It is not about them giving medical information, but really just to make sure that people are accessing the right information. Maybe breaking down the misinformation and conspiracy theories."

Mr Morrison said the focus needs to be on older Australians as those in their thirties are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine.

"There's no point talking to people who are 30 years old at the moment, because they can't go and get a vaccine," he told 3AW radio. 

"We're talking to those who are eligible for the vaccine at the moment, which is over 50s and particularly those who are over 70 and in residential aged care facilities."

Dr Seale said it is important to use those aged in their thirties and under as advocates to encourage older Australians to get vaccinated.  

"Younger Australians are also the ones who can go to their parents and nudge our parents to go and vaccinate. We make up a large proportion of people who are on social media every day, passing on information to older family friends and relatives

"And so potentially a campaign targeted at Australians in their thirties, people who are younger, may actually have a more positive response more broadly."

She said the UK government's move towards a summit on communication and engagement for the rollout is something Australia should also adopt. 

Public health experts warn herd immunity goal at risk

Doctors said without a significant overhaul of the communication strategy to emphasise benefits such as international travel, it will be very difficult to reach herd immunity. 

Australian Medical Association vice president Chris Moy said the timeline for the rollout needs to be accelerated.

"We're sitting ducks as a country and as individuals until we get a significant portion of the population vaccinated, particularly those over 50," he told the ABC. 

Epidemiologist Tony Blakely at the University of Melbourne said there needs to be a serious conversation on the threshold for herd immunity and government policy settings to incentivise vaccination. 

"I do think there are occupational or workplace settings, or social settings, where it is okay to say: 'If you're not vaccinated, you can't work here'. Aged care is an example. But otherwise, it is about stepping up the efforts, stepping up the morality of it, to encourage people to be vaccinated. 

"But also we're going to get to the point where if you want to travel, you're going to need to get vaccinated. And the states and territories could do that with their borders too."

7 min read
Published 20 May 2021 at 3:27pm
By Biwa Kwan
Source: SBS News