Australian attitudes on the COVID-19 vaccine differ on political lines — but the vast majority are still keen for the jab



An exclusive survey on the COVID-19 vaccine in Australia has found “stark” differences in attitudes depending on a person’s political persuasion — what one expert describes as part of a “concerning trend” seen in the US and parts of Europe.

As Australia’s vaccine rollout slowly gathers pace with the first jabs of the AstraZeneca vaccine taking place in South Australia on Friday, the survey found 72 per cent of Australians are “very likely” to get a COVID-19 vaccine — the highest level since the ABC began asking the Australian population, back in April 2020.

Yet according to the survey conducted by Vox Pop Labs — the same team that worked on the Australia Talks and Vote Compass surveys — the number of people “very unlikely” to get the vaccine has also grown since last year, up to 10 per cent.

According to vaccine researcher Julie Leask, the increased numbers of people committing to take the vaccine could be attributed to the rollout actually starting in Australia.

“[In our separate research] we were actually seeing a decline in intentions to vaccinate between the September and January periods,” Professor Leask said.

“Now that people are seeing the vaccine, it’s arrived in Australia, they’re starting to get those systems ready and people are getting the needle, [Australians] are probably starting to more easily imagine themselves being vaccinated.”

According to Professor Leask, a World Health Organization advisor, the most startling trend to come out of the survey was the big difference in vaccine acceptance depending on a person’s political persuasion.

In late September — the last time the survey was conducted — 11 per cent of those people identifying to the right side of politics said they were “very unlikely” to take the vaccine, compared to 6 per cent of those in the “centre” and 5 per cent for those on the “left”.

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The latest survey now shows substantial growth in that figure, with 19 per cent on the right now saying they’re “very unlikely” to take the vaccine. That compares to 8 per cent of those identifying with the centre and 4 per cent for those on the left.

“It is a concerning emerging trend, the left-right divide is quite stark.

“We must remember most people on the left and the right are willing to vaccinate, [the] data shows this.

“But what we don’t want to see with immunisation in Australia is a political polarisation around it, we don’t want to go the way of the US and parts of European countries where we see even bigger divides in the attitudes between the left and the right.”

The data comes after some members of the federal government — including former Liberal member Craig Kelly, who has since moved to the crossbench — came under fire for promoting health misinformation, countering multi-million-dollar government advertising campaigns.

Professor Leask said the solution to close the political gap in vaccine attitudes was to have “leaders and influencers” in Australia, “particularly on the right”, demonstrate their strong commitment to the vaccine rollout.

“There are prominent people [on the right] acting more as lightning rods to these views, probably more than they’re influencing them,” she said. “And it was smart to have [Australian] politicians take the vaccine in the first week.

“But we know that liberty strongly correlates with vaccination acceptance [and] the desire for free choice.

“And that is one of the things that’s caused these big divides in the US and parts of Europe around pandemic control strategies, causing huge amounts of anger.

“So I’d say the solution is for other people [who accept vaccination] on the right to link it to their freedoms that are important — freedom to travel, for example.”

Safety and efficacy

According to the survey, almost 80 per cent of Australians consider the vaccines to be “very safe” or “mostly safe”.

The demographic breakdown of that data showed men and those politically aligned to the left were more trusting of the vaccines. Yet 14 per cent of people on the right of politics believed the vaccines were “not at all safe”.

On the subject of efficacy, 54 per cent believed the vaccines were “somewhat effective” and 27 per cent “very effective”.

Vaccine researcher Margie Danchin said safety and efficacy were “key elements” in the decision-making process around vaccination.

“People have questions over these vaccines,” said Dr Danchin, an associate professor at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

“In our research we’ve found vaccine safety is the number one concern and vaccine efficacy, or how well it works, is number two.

“When you break down safety, it’s concerns that the vaccines are being developed too quickly and that trials are being skipped.

“And then there’s adverse events, not so much the short-term stuff, but long-term concerns.”

Dr Margie Danchin of the Murdoch Research Institute. Interviewed by 7.30, December 2018.
Dr Margie Danchin of the Murdoch Research Institute(Supplied: Murdoch Research Institute)

Dr Danchin said the key to having vaccine conversations with “demographics of concern” was not about providing more facts to people who may be reluctant to take the vaccine.

“It’s about trust,” she said. “How you communicate and what you say. It’s a massive challenge, particularly for GPs”

The government has come under pressure this week over the slow pace of the rollout, and a perceived lack of information about who will receive the jab and how and when they will be notified.

Some GPs have also expressed concern over the lack of information available as 4,800 GP practices gear up to deliver the jab when phase 1b commences later this month.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has indicated more specific information about the rollout will be forthcoming as GPs are locked in.

Dr Danchin said the government, and all leaders, needed to do a better job of communicating the basics.

Professor Leask agreed there was “confusion out there”.

“It’s important to drill down into these groups [that might be reluctant to take the vaccine] and find out what’s going on,” she said.

“But it’s also important to be open about it all.

“We know that the vaccine can make you a bit unwell a day or so after having it, and that 60 per cent might have tiredness, 50 per cent might have a headache, and 30 per cent might have chills, so yeah, it could cause you to have a little bit of a reaction, but the good news is, it is the immune system ramping up for when it sees COVID.

“It’s so important we have that information out there to address those concerns well.”

This survey was conducted by Vox Pop Labs.

Using 1,376 respondents, it has a margin of error of plus-minus 2.64 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

All data has been weighted on the basis of sex, age, education level, state and vote choice in the 2019 federal election, to provide a nationally representative sample of the Australian population.

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