When 6,000 partygoers crowded into Liverpool’s Circus Nightclub over two days last weekend, no one had to wear a face mask or physically distance as they gyrated on the giant dance floor.

The gigs were the latest step in Britain’s gradual return to normal and further proof of the effectiveness of the country’s COVID-19 vaccination program, which has been built around the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab.

While health officials in many countries, including Canada, have voiced reservations about the AstraZeneca vaccine because of its potential connection to rare blood clots, Britain has stood by the shot and kept it at the forefront of its inoculation drive. If anything, public support for vaccines has increased as the number of people immunized rises above 50 per cent and hope soars that all lockdown restrictions will be lifted.

In recent weeks “more people have seen the news about the rare cases of blood clots but it hasn’t affected overall [vaccine] sentiment,” said Bobby Duffy, director of the policy institute at King’s College London, which has been studying the public’s attitude toward vaccines. “In fact we’ve seen an increase in people’s certainty to get a vaccine.”

Dr. Duffy said one reason for the strong acceptance has been the success of the vaccine rollout. “The speed with which it has happened and the fact that very little has come up in terms of side-effect issues is giving people a lot more faith,” he said. “There are very few people who are saying definitely no to the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

Britain has bet heavily on this vaccine, which was developed last year in conjunction with scientists at the University of Oxford. The government invested £88-million ($154-million) to produce it and Britain was the first country to authorize its use.

The AstraZeneca vaccine has become the cornerstone of the government’s immunization effort, which has been among the fastest in the world. More than 26 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab had been administered as of April 21, according to figures released last week by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). That represented 59 per cent of all vaccinations, which also included shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

The MHRA said it had received reports of 209 cases and 41 deaths involving cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, or CVST, a rare condition that occurs when clots form in veins that drain blood from the brain. All of the cases occurred in people who had received the AstraZeneca vaccine and the tally had increased from 168 cases and 32 deaths in mid-April. The agency said the risk level had increased to 9.3 cases for every one million doses, from 7.9 per million.

The MHRA and other health officials have insisted that the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh any risks. However, the government has recommended that people under the age of 30 should be offered an alternative vaccine, if available.

Unlike several countries in Europe, Britain did not pause its use of the AstraZeneca vaccine and the government has been consistent in urging people to get the jab. Canada, by contrast, has offered mixed messages. This week the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines over AstraZeneca’s because of the blood clot concerns. That went against Health Canada’s advice, which advised that Canadians should take the first vaccine they are offered.

Bill Graham, who helps run a vaccination clinic northwest of Leeds, said public reaction to the blood clot reports in Britain has been muted and he’s seen little reluctance in the take-up of the vaccine. “There’s been virtually none,” Mr. Graham said Wednesday when asked about any hesitancy. “When [AstraZeneca] is in the news, out of a day clinic of 600 people, we might have one to five refusals.”

Tom White, a retired doctor in Yorkshire who has volunteered as a vaccinator, said only a few people have failed to show up for appointments for the AstraZeneca jab. “Overall the vaccine program here seems to have been going pretty well,” he added.

A study released last week by Dr. Duffy’s group at King’s College found there had been only a slight increase in the number of people who said they didn’t want the AstraZeneca vaccine and the vast majority of those surveyed said they had no preference. The study, which involved nearly 5,000 people, also found that 81 per cent of respondents believed that all vaccines were safe. That was up from 73 per cent in a similar survey in December.

There’s ample evidence that the immunization program is working. The number of daily infections and deaths from the virus fell to 2,144 and 27 respectively on Wednesday. That compared to more than 60,000 infections and 1,500 deaths some days in January when a new variant of the virus began to sweep across the country.

The government has grown confident enough to announce that much of the economy will reopen on May 17, when people will be allowed to dine indoors at pubs and restaurants and take holidays abroad. If all goes well, nearly all pandemic restrictions will be lifted by the end of June. A pilot program to test whether large crowds can return to sports events, nightclubs, theatres and festivals has also reportedly gone well although final results will only be released in a few weeks.

“The data on the vaccines is getting ever more encouraging,” Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, told the BBC this week. He and other health experts said fears of another wave occurring this summer as restrictions ease have largely faded.

The infection rate would have to be much higher before hospitals became overwhelmed, said Dr. Ferguson. ”And we think that it’s actually unlikely to happen unless a variant comes along which resets that relationship again,” he said.

The Globe and Mail, May 6, 2021