The Molecule and the Message

The Irrational Roots of the UK's Vaccine Success

The UK is often accused of thinking itself exceptional: talking itself up, holding outdated views of its role, clinging to faded imperial grandeur and old sporting triumphs.


A far more popular British pastime is to talk longingly of the way other nations get things right. Pining after the the lifestyles of Scandinavians with their cosy social democracies, practical furniture, and moody detective programmes. Looking to Germany for serious-minded reforming ideas about education and industrial policy. Gazing longingly at the French and their attitude supérieure to everything from sex and food to philosophy and family life.

But the UK is (at least for now) exceptional. For one, its vaccine roll-out is world-beating for its size and speed. Around 46 million first doses (about 67% of the population) have been administered out to a population of 67 million. Other developed nations are (mercifully) catching up, but still lag behind: Italy sits at 59%, Germany at 58%, and France at 52%. Others trail far behind: Japan sits at 30% and Australia at 27%.

The UK’s success is more than a logistical feat. It seems to be grounded in public attitudes.

The UK bucks a trend highlighted in a Wellcome Trust study from 2018 which looked into public attitudes towards vaccines. The study found that richer countries tended to be more sceptical of vaccines, despite being better educated, more trusting of science, and more trusting of doctors than developing countries. Japan, France, Switzerland, and Austria stood out as particularly rich and suspicious. Amidst this crowd, the UK looks like a bit of an outlier. While 75% of people in the UK thought vaccines were safe, the figure is breathtakingly low in France at 47%.

The UK is also one of the happiest countries in the world to get vaccinated: a survey conducted by Imperial College London with YouGov found that between November 2020 and February 2021 Britons were the happiest group to get the vaccine (out of 14 other countries surveyed). Another survey conducted by Ipsos Mori found a similar trend: nine in ten British adults (89%) who had not been vaccinated would get a vaccine if it were available. In France, meanwhile, the figure was 33% of adults.

Education, trust in science and trust in doctors alone does not lead to trust in vaccines. So, are there any communication lessons we can glean from the UK’s success?

Because we are social animals inclined to follow the herd, we are in turn encouraged to accept the jab. This would also explain why confidence in vaccines is growing globally as the rollout continues.

The first point is around the importance of social proof. Not only was the UK quicker to vaccinate than its neighbours, but the government also made the rollout as visible as possible. It showed people getting vaccinated and even made use of celebrities like Elton John and Michael Cain to ram home the point. Because we are social animals inclined to follow the herd, we are in turn encouraged to accept the jab. This would also explain why confidence in vaccines is growing globally as the rollout continues.

The second point is that a legacy of poor communications and lack of transparency when it comes to vaccines can linger. The Wellcome Trust study found that scepticism towards vaccines in France was in part linked to the confusion and obfuscation surrounding a controversial influenza vaccination campaign in 2009. Many (developed) countries continue to worry about the (false) links between vaccinations and autism. Couple this with recent vaccine-skeptic politicians in Europe and concerns expressed around safety, and this seems to have rocked trust further. In Italy, the Five Star Movement recently won power (in part) due to vaccine skepticism.

The UK may also have benefited from its peculiar relationship with its health service. The messaging around Covid-19 in the UK has been skewered as inconsistent. However, there has been an emotive red thread running through the approach linked to collective effort, saving the NHS and protecting loved ones. The NHS has served as a focal point which has helped focus minds and emotions. (As the former Chancellor Nigel Lawson once quipped it is the “closest thing the English people have to a religion”.) It is easier to communicate through a single known, trusted and largely de-politicised source (brand or religion) than it is to communicate via a myriad of obscure departments, politicians, and scientists.

“If there is hope that can come out of it, then that may arise from the whole world having experienced a shared threat and found a sense that we are all in it together.” - Sir David Attenborough

It is also easier to communicate through popular public figures. The UK high priests of celebrity culture are as likely to be beloved scientists and wonks as they are entertainers. The profile and popularity of people like Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins or Robert Winston may have indirectly encouraged many to get jabbed. Sir David Attenborough’s vaccination was a national news story. Sir David said: “If there is hope that can come out of it, then that may arise from the whole world having experienced a shared threat and found a sense that we are all in it together.”

And there may be even less rational reasons for the UK’s enthusiasm: branding.

As one industry wag has pointed out, there is probably a benefit to having an “Oxford” vaccine. While most pharmaceutical brand names sound like “the kind of menacing name a James Bond villain would choose” Oxford is familiar and comfortable; associated with nice architecture, annoyingly confident students, and regional TV detective series.

Clearly how the message is delivered is as vital as the message itself. UK citizens may be doing a very rational thing for quite irrational reasons. This is a challenge for organisations steeped in the scientific method, evidence, and data. But humans, sadly, do not behave like molecules in a neat model. Trust cannot be built through education or the communication of facts and information alone. Instead, consider the messenger – whether it is a semi-religious state-run healthcare system or a trusted and knowledgeable celebrity. Play up the fact that “everyone else is doing it” and don’t discount the role of a friendly and familiar heuristic like “Oxford” to encourage positive behaviour.

All these profoundly irrational reasons may be helping propel the UK’s vaccination drive. (And, whisper it, there may even be a hint of national pride that, for once, the UK seem to be excelling at something.)

Neil is Associate Director, Planning, at Weber Shandwick Scotland. He works across a range of sectors supporting clients with his specialist skills in brand building, from customer research and targeting, to brand positioning and creative development. Neil has particular expertise in pharmaceuticals and healthcare brand communications. Contact him at [email protected]


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