The findings of the latest Irish Times/MRBI poll on Covid attitudes – covered by Ben on Friday here – are genuinely extraordinary.
Overall, a slight majority – 51% – want to open the country up more quickly than the Government is presently doing. But it is very close – 46% actually think the country is opening up too quickly. The truly extraordinary thing, though, is that the result is close because those who have already been vaccinated are the very people who want the country to proceed at a much slower pace.
In other words, the people with the highest level of protection from Covid are the very people who remain most frightened of it. Why?
The biggest factor, obviously, is that vaccination status is linked to age. And age is the single biggest predictor, globally, of support for lockdowns and restrictions. That is because older people, in the initial stages of the pandemic, were most at risk of serious illness and death. But it is also no coincidence that as a general rule, older people live different lives to the young: They tend to disproportionately own their own, more spacious, homes. They tend to be married, and therefore less in need of opportunities to socialise. They tend to be financially secure. It is a generalisation, obviously, but in general, the older you are, the less you notice the impact of restrictions and lockdowns.
The question, though, is this: Why hasn’t the vaccine changed that?
Speaking personally, as the recipient of two doses of Moderna, Covid-19 no longer frightens me in any way, shape, or form. The figures internationally, after all, are clear: A double vaccinated person has basically no risk at all of serious illness or death. If somebody like me gets Covid (which is vastly less likely, with the vaccine) then the worst case scenario, in almost all circumstances, is a very mild illness.
So why, then, don’t my fellow vaccinated people feel the same way?
In answering that question we cannot, you suspect, ignore the role played by the Irish media, which has persistently amplified those who, with no scientific basis, claim that the “covid variants” are poised for, or have already achieved, vaccine escape. The Delta/Indian variant, for example, is widely cited in the Irish media as being a risk to vaccinated people, even though the international evidence is very clear that it is no such thing:
According to the latest figures from Public Health England (PHE), four weeks after one dose, either vaccine offered almost 50% protection against the Alpha variant. However for the Delta variant this protection was lower, with one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab offering about 36% protection against symptomatic disease. For one dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine this figure was about 30%.
Two weeks after the second dose, the differences in vaccine effectiveness by variant were more modest, with the Pfizer/BioNTech jab offering 88% protection against symptomatic disease with the Delta variant, compared with 94% protection against the Alpha variant. For the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, the figures were 67% and 74% respectively.
Obviously, there are a modest, if not large, number of people who refuse to take the vaccine at all, either because they have concerns about its safety record, the approval process, or simply do not like the idea and would rather take their chances with their immune system. But those people, anecdotally and in terms of the data from other countries, are also the people who want to open up more quickly. For example, polls from the USA have consistently shown that those who do not wish to be vaccinated are also those who are most eager to open up, while, like in Ireland, vaccinated people are broadly more cautious. So once again, we see the paradox where the lower your risk is, the more risk averse you become.
Is this simply a question of personality type? Are more risk-averse people more likely to be vaccinated, and therefore also more likely, because they are risk averse, to want to open up? Does not wanting to be vaccinate correlate with being more willing to accept risks in general?
There’s a lengthy social science study to be done on all of this.
What is clear, though, is that politicians will soon have to switch their messaging, and do so dramatically, if they want our society and economy to get back to something like their full output. After 18 months of telling people to be careful, and embrace constant vigilance, we’re going to have to start proactively telling people that they are safe, and can live life as normal.