Earlier this week, the UK government announced that COVID-19 vaccines are to be offered to all children aged 12 to 15. As the UK’s child vaccination programme is rolled out, vaccine hesitancy among parents has the potential to become a significant public health challenge as authorities race to maximise the population’s immunity and keep the virus under control.

Despite a growing body of research on vaccine hesitancy in general, there has so far been relatively little research on parental hesitancy. In our latest project in the Turing’s public policy programme, we investigated the reasons for parents’ concerns about vaccinating their children.

Our study, funded by the Health Foundation, surveyed 1,549 parents who broadly represent the UK population in terms of gender and ethnicity. We asked respondents about their socio-demographics, such as gender, ethnicity and age, as well as their political views and their experiences and views about COVID-19 and vaccines, including their likelihood of vaccinating their children once a vaccine is approved. In addition, we assessed respondents’ personality traits, cognitive skills and level of belief in COVID-19-related misinformation.

We find evidence of widespread parental vaccine hesitancy, with 26% of parents indicating that they will either definitely not or are very unlikely to vaccinate their children, which could allow the virus to persist and spread in classrooms, playgrounds and beyond. As might be expected, the most important predictor of whether a parent is likely to vaccinate their child is whether the parent has already been vaccinated (or is likely to get vaccinated). In short, vaccinated parents are more likely to feel positive about vaccinating their children.

We also find that parents are more likely to forgo vaccinating their children than themselves, with 20% of parents seeing vaccines as less safe for their children than for themselves. This presents a real risk that even already-vaccinated parents will refuse to vaccinate their children.

Among those parents who expressed concerns about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine for children, the biggest concern was blood clots (45% of concerned parents), followed by unknown effects (38% of concerned parents). 11% of parents indicated concern that the vaccine may cause autism. Although it is understandable that parents are cautious about negative effects of vaccinating their children, most concerns are not grounded in scientific evidence. For example, a recent study which gave two injections of either the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine or a placebo to 2,260 children aged 12 to 15 found “no vaccine-related serious adverse events”.

In our study, certain demographic characteristics were associated with parental vaccine hesitancy. For example, fathers are more likely to vaccinate their children than mothers, and parents with older children (e.g. 14 to 18-year-olds) are more likely to vaccinate their children than parents of younger children. We found that parents with higher trust in scientific and medical institutions are more likely to vaccinate their children, whereas parents with higher trust in friends and family are less likely to vaccinate. Parents who hold many false COVID-19-related health beliefs are less likely to vaccinate, as are parents who believe that COVID-19 has lower potential to severely impact children.

In light of our findings, we offer three key recommendations to public health practitioners and policy makers:

1. Address parents’ concerns about the vaccines by providing more information about key health-related issues and by combatting false claims. Focus on addressing why parents are more concerned for their children than themselves.

2. Clearly communicate the risks of failing to vaccinate children. Parents who recognise the severity of the virus are more likely to vaccinate their children.

3. Take steps to increase trust in scientific and medical institutions, particularly among parents who are unlikely to vaccinate their children. Emphasise the importance of evidence-based science, rather than relying too heavily on advice from family and friends.

To find out more about this research, read our paper or contact Dr Bertie Vidgen.