Last week’s flurry of debate about the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines that Australians are poised to receive was a reminder of the importance of communication when it comes to public health. The story diminished quickly after government briefings, more detailed public explanations from vaccination experts, and position reversals from the two learned societies that had initially expressed concerns.
Scrutiny of policy decisions is part of a healthy democracy, but this story has the potential to increase hesitancy about COVID-19 vaccines, because debates between experts can increase people’s uncertainty. Already in November, a survey found 29 per cent of respondents were somewhat likely and 13 per cent not very likely to take up a COVID-19 vaccine.
This is a delicate time for the shaping of vaccine intentions. Demand for information about the vaccines is high and will intensify. Communication gaps often occur in vaccination programs, when evidence is still emerging and health authorities seek to gather technically complex information before sharing it. Government will often require multiple layers of approval in this process, but it needs to be more proactive and flexible in fast-moving situations like this, so people are well informed and empowered to act appropriately.
New vaccine programs bring legitimate public concerns that require timely responses. Last month, the government showed some limited effort to inform the public about the vaccine program, but it needs to share with the public and professionals much more detail about the vaccines the government has obtained – what is known about them and what remains uncertain; what has informed policy and prioritisation decisions; and what dilemmas and trade-offs were faced.