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Vaccine rates in prisons lag behind rest of country prompting fear of Covid outbreaks

13 August 2021, 08:21

Prison vaccination rates lag behind the rest of the country
Prison vaccination rates lag behind the rest of the country. Picture: Alamy
Matthew Thompson

By Matthew Thompson

Vaccination rates in prisons are lagging far behind the general population, LBC can reveal, prompting fears of outbreaks even as the rest of the country returns to normal.

Whilst all prisoners in England and Wales have been offered a vaccine, we’ve seen data that shows only just over half (56%) have received both doses. That compares to 75% of the general population in England, and 84% in Wales.

But what is also striking are the rates of vaccine refusal in prisons. Those, according to figures we've obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, in conjunction with independent researcher Dr Tim Kerr, stand at close to 40%.

And the rates of vaccination amongst prison staff are lower still. According to data passed to LBC by prisons charity the Howard League, less than half of prison staff have had two doses of a vaccine. That is potentially even more concerning, as it is staff who are going back and forward from prisons into the community and could be bringing the virus with them.

The highest rates of refusal amongst prisoners appear to be in younger males. The lowest rates are amongst female and older prisoners. Vaccine misinformation in prison is rife, with bizarre myths circulating such as the vaccination turns you gay, that your arm drops off, or that it's a tracking device.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, said part of the problem is the way vaccinations were administered: “If you had a sensible system of delivering vaccines which was based on the whole prison, so everybody was offered the vaccine at the same time, these sort of ridiculous ideas could be addressed properly.

“But that's not what prisons did, they did it mimicking the priority list in the community, which meant a handful of prisoners in one prison were offered the vaccine, then a handful of prisoners in another prison, and that meant the whole prison wasn't addressing the crazy ideas that were circulating, and that's why you've had this problem of hesitancy.”

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There were, of course, political reasons for that policy. Imagine the public outcry if terrorists or rapists were getting vaccinated before care home residents. But the result has been to allow a pandemic of misinformation to take hold in prisons.

And there are consequences for prisoner freedom as well as prisoner and staff health.

Mark Fairhurst, national chair of the Prison Officers Association said: “The longer we wait for everyone to be vaccinated, the longer we keep restrictions in place, so that's really disappointing. And the advice from [Public Health England] tells us that we need an 80% vaccination rate across the board before we are considered a safe enough environment to unlock more and ease restrictions fully.”

And that matters. LBC has reported before on how lockdown affects prisoners, their access to their families, with direct effects on reoffending rates. So, there are possible ramifications for crime rates in this problem too.

The MoJ told us in a statement that: “All prisoners in custody have now been offered the vaccination. This, alongside the other measures we’ve put in place during the pandemic, has kept thousands of officers and offenders safe and we continue to keep these restrictions under review.”

It is also the case that the data on prison staff vaccinations is self-reported, so it’s possible that the actual number of prison staff who have had both jabs is slightly higher than 45%.