Uptake in the UK is slow – so parents might hesitate

Vaccination hesitation is a complex issue. A person’s decision to accept or reject a vaccine is influenced by a range of factors, from political influences to cultural beliefs to previous vaccination experiences. Deciding whether to vaccinate a child is arguably even more complicated.

It is perhaps not surprising that children’s COVID vaccine protection varies greatly. In the UK, the proportion of five to eleven year olds who have received at least one dose ranges from around 3% in Northern Ireland to 9% in England, 13% in Wales and 20% in Scotland.

Many countries have achieved higher coverage. For example, in Austria, Iceland, Portugal, Spain and Denmark, more than 20% of children aged five to nine have received two doses. In the US, more than a third of children aged five to 11 and 70% of children aged 12 to 15 have received at least one dose, while in Australia more than half of children aged five to 11 have received one Received a push, with nearly 40% receiving two.

So why aren’t childhood vaccination rates higher in the UK? One reason is undoubtedly the timing. For example, while vaccines for five to eleven year olds were recommended in the United States in November 2021, they were not offered to this age group in England until early April. But there are other likely reasons for this slow uptake.

safety and side effects

In Our Public Views During the COVID Pandemic project, my colleagues and I have been following public opinion on COVID vaccines. As part of this study, 24 adults participated in focus groups where we discussed attitudes towards childhood COVID vaccines.

Many participants in this study were concerned about possible unknown side effects. As one parent put it, “I still feel that [at] Sometime in the future they will discover something [about the vaccine] that affects kids more than adults.” Another said, “I don’t want my son to be part of a giant experiment.”

Concerns about side effects are also commonly identified in large surveys examining parents’ views on COVID vaccines for children.

Read more: COVID Vaccines for Children Under Five: What Parents Need to Know

It is understandable that many people, especially parents, feel increased hesitation when making a decision that affects children. But COVID vaccines have proven effective and safe in this age group.

All side effects are generally mild and should only last a day or two. More serious side effects such as heart inflammation (myocarditis) are very rare.


As with adults, there are significant socioeconomic inequalities in coverage. Children from some ethnic groups and from more economically disadvantaged backgrounds were less likely to be vaccinated.

For example, in January 2022, only one in eight Black Caribbean and Gypsy/Roma 12- to 15-year-olds had received at least one dose, compared with six in ten white Britons and three-quarters of Chinese 12- to 15-year-olds. Schools with more than half of their students having access to free school meals had an average immunization rate of 29%, while schools with fewer than 5% of students having access to free meals had an average immunization rate of 73%.

Research has shown that trust in authorities and scientists is an important factor in determining vaccine acceptance or hesitation. Distrust is understandably much greater among historically marginalized groups, and this appears to have translated into higher levels of distrust and consequently acceptance of vaccines for 5-11 year olds.

A child with a mask lies on a teddy bear.
Many parents find it difficult to decide whether to vaccinate their child against COVID.
Ann in the UK/Shutterstock

sources of information

Sources of information play an important role when people decide whether or not to vaccinate their child. We found that local social norms strongly influenced people’s choices. So if someone’s family or friends have their children vaccinated, they too are more likely to look for a vaccine for their child – and vice versa.

Research from the US has shown that parents of vaccinated children are much more likely to cite healthcare professionals as an important source of information. Parents of unvaccinated children, on the other hand, were significantly more likely to say their own research was important to decision-making.


In the World Health Organization’s Vaccine Hesitancy Determinants Matrix, a framework for understanding the causes of hesitation, one of the factors is “strength of recommendation”. That is, to what extent the recommendation or promotion of a vaccine by influential actors such as politicians, physicians and scientists can help in influencing uptake.

A number of health scientists in the UK have criticized the official recommendations for both 12-15 and 5-11 year olds as weak. Vaccine delivery for 12- to 15-year-olds, it was argued, was slow, convoluted and lacked urgency.

The subsequent vaccination offer for five to eleven year olds was expressly framed as “not urgent”. This is much less likely to lead to action than an official recommendation that portrays vaccines as an important means of keeping children “safe” and “protecting” communities – as seen in New Zealand and the US, for example.

Read more: Uptake of child COVID vaccines is low in the UK – and their slow, confused approval is to blame

The benefits outweigh the risks

The pace of vaccination has slowed in many countries and it is unlikely that we will see a significant increase in childhood immunization coverage in countries like the UK any time soon. With attitudes towards vaccines being heavily influenced by how much risk COVID poses, we are arguably in the UK at a stage where the risk is perceived by the public to be lower than before.

However, as many parents continue to weigh the decision, it’s worth noting that a number of scientific authorities, including the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicate that the health benefits of vaccination are greater than possible Risks for children over the age of five.

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