There’s no shortage of customers for Covid-19 vaccinations at Blackburn Cathedral, where, for generations, local folk have sung Christian hymns in their Sunday best.
Today, the imposing building is open for other business. Instead of saving souls, it is busy helping to save lives.
Volunteers hold umbrellas over Lancashire’s elderly, many in wheelchairs or propped up by walking sticks, as they guide them into the crypt for pre-booked appointments to have the Covid-19 vaccine.
First in the door as the cathedral opened as a jabs’ hub was John Mason, 82, from Bolton. When he emerged 20 minutes later, he said: ‘It was easy-peasy. Nothing to worry about.’
But that’s not how everyone round here sees it.
The vaccinations were first offered to all Lancastrians aged 80 and above living within a 45-minute drive of the cathedral, an area dotted by multicultural former mill towns.
Yet we found a dramatic mismatch between people turning up and the ethnic make-up of those who live in this part of the North-West.
A major survey by the UK Household Longitudinal Study has found 42 per cent of Asian or Asian British individuals were ‘unlikely’ or ‘very unlikely’ to take the coronavirus vaccine. Pictured: Mufti Zubair Butt, a Muslim imam and chaplain, is vaccinated with the Pfizer jab against Covid-19 at Whetley Medical Centre, Bradford
Over eight hours at the cathedral on the second day of the jabs’ rollout, only five of the 250 people vaccinated were of South Asian heritage, and all were elderly ladies brought by a younger family member. It was a similar sight of predominately white faces the next day.
All this raises a sensitive question. Why do so few from the local Pakistani and Indian communities want the vaccine when it could save their lives?
A major survey by the UK Household Longitudinal Study has found 42 per cent of Asian or Asian British individuals were ‘unlikely’ or ‘very unlikely’ to have it.
Even more shocking was the fact that 72 per cent of black people (of Caribbean or African heritage) are wary of inoculation.
Last week, NHS England announced it is to give £23 million to local councils to encourage uptake of the jab among high-risk groups, including the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) community.
Justin Varney, Birmingham’s public health director, warned that 50 per cent of residents in parts of his city with the largest BAME population are reluctant to have the jab.
Medical workers in Stoke-on-Trent have reported a non-attendance rate of up to 30 per cent among BAME patients invited for vaccination, compared with just 2 to 3 per cent of others in the city.
The extraordinary level of reluctance among non-white British people not only jeopardises the vaccination programme, but also the lives of those most at risk from the virus.
Though they make up 11 per cent of the population, it has hit their communities hardest of all.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that black men are 4.7 times — and black women 4.3 times — more likely to suffer a Covid-related death than white people of the same age.
Even after adjustments for deprivation, occupational exposure to the disease and other factors, it is a similarly tragic story.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi, who was born in Iraq and who revealed yesterday that he had lost his 88-year-old uncle, Faiz Issa, to Covid-19 a fortnight ago, has warned that if BAME people shy away from inoculation, the virus will ‘quickly infect’ their communities and spread to others.
Yet still countless numbers refuse to have it. Last month, in an unprecedented High Court ruling, a West Indian-born woman who lives in a care home, was ordered to have the jab — to the ‘dismay’ of her family.
Her son desperately argued in court that his mother — a retired London secretary who is in her 80s and has dementia — should not get the jab because the testing was carried out predominantly on ‘white people’.
He insisted that doctors, who had brought the case to the Court of Protection (where judges rule on the healthcare of vulnerable adults), should wait to vaccinate his mother until there is more proof of its safety for people like her.
A video of celebrities of Asian heritage, including TV presenter Konnie Huq (pictured), actress Meera Syal and cricketer Moeen Ali — who recovered from Covid — has been released to take aim at the fake news spreading on social media
Mistrust of the vaccine has spread among black British NHS nurses and even some doctors. Some of them are refusing to have the jab because they want to ‘watch and wait’ to see if it is safe.
Others have friends or relatives who have caught Covid since being inoculated (which is, sadly, possible because the jab may take weeks to provoke immunity), and so believe it is ineffective.
The Mail has been told that at one North London hospital, refusal among BAME nurses is so prevalent, vaccines prepared for the day are having to be thrown away when these frontline staff fail to turn up for their appointments.
And yet black and Asian NHS staff have accounted for 63 per cent of Covid deaths, despite making up only 21 per cent of the workforce.
One senior nurse at a London NHS practice told us: ‘Vaccine fear is a huge problem among my black British staff. More than half of my small group of nurses won’t have it, even though they are on the front line of the vaccine roll-out and should be role models to encourage uptake in their communities.
Star support: Celebrities including Konnie Huq and Meera Syal (pictured) encourage vaccination in Adil Ray’s video
‘I feel they have a civic duty to get the jab, as they come face to face with patients. I have heard of an African NHS doctor who is saying no to it, too.’
Meanwhile, some of the world’s top vaccine experts are also having difficulty persuading their nearest and dearest to have the jab.
Jamaican-born Herb Sewell, emeritus professor of immunology at Nottingham University, says: ‘Members of my own family — apparently intelligent people — have picked up this anti-vaccine stuff.’
He has had ‘a word’ with the doubters and hopes he has won them round. But he is not sure all his loved ones have listened.
Professor Sewell adds that black icons, such as the rapper Stormzy or Manchester United footballer and campaigner Marcus Rashford, should become vaccine champions to counter the propaganda, particularly among young people.
A video of celebrities of Asian heritage, including TV presenter Konnie Huq, actress Meera Syal and cricketer Moeen Ali — who recovered from Covid — has been released to take aim at the fake news spreading on social media.
The five-minute reel, focusing on the Asian community, was the idea of TV presenter Adil Ray, who says: ‘We felt we needed to do something.’
So how has the deep mistrust gained a stranglehold?
Emmanuel Adeseko, 32, a Birmingham pastor, is urging Afro-Caribbean people to be inoculated after revelations that the take-up in parts of his city is touching 50 per cent.
‘Some of the real fear is caused by the misinformation on social media — there is so much of it,’ says Mr Adeseko, whose own father, 65-year-old Nathaniel, died from Covid-19 in April. ‘But it’s not just one thing; there are religious beliefs at play and some people have had negative experiences with healthcare in the past.’
Dr Abdul Zubairu, a GP in Southport, Merseyside, who has had the jab as a frontline health worker, explained in The Voice newspaper — with a mostly Afro-Caribbean readership — that there is a history of medical maltreatment in the black community ‘we cannot ignore’.
The forced sterilisation of black women in the U.S., a lack of UK research into the blood disorder sickle-cell disease — which affects mainly black people — and shocking statistics showing that black women are five times more likely than those from other races to die in pregnancy and childbirth, have stoked a general mistrust of health authorities.
Professor Sewell also cites memories of the horrific Tuskegee experiment, a decades-long project to investigate syphilis in the U.S. state of Alabama which began in 1932.
More than 600 African-American men were experimented on into the 1970s. Some were not treated long after the discovery of penicillin, which could have cured them.
Twenty-eight died while others went blind or insane. Some wives caught the disease and passed it on to their babies. Little wonder the scandal has not been forgotten.
Dr Farzana Hussain, an NHS clinical director in Newham, East London, says: ‘I have had several consultations with African patients who are nervous about the speed of the vaccine rollout. They are also worried about claims it can permanently damage their bodies.’
In a 2016 Government report by integration tsar Louise Casey, the town was deemed to be among the UK’s most racially segregated.
It has earned notoriety since for being in the top league for Covid-19 infections.
We were so concerned about the low numbers of BAME people at the Cathedral the first time we visited, that we returned to check it was not the wet weather that had put them off from coming.
But of 100 people who receive their vaccination that next afternoon, only 13 are from the Pakistani and Indian communities.
Iftakhar Hussein, a Blackburn council worker, wheeling in his 85-year-old mother, Gil Begum, explains: ‘There are a lot of myths and conspiracy theories going around about the jabs. But we have to put our trust in them.
‘The mosques, Muslim councillors and doctors are all encouraging us to have the vaccine — people should listen.’
Another of the few South Asian women at the cathedral hub is Nirmala Passi, 86, escorted by her son, Dharum. The family is Hindu and from nearby Preston. Dharum, 62, says: ‘The jab is the best thing for us all. Some of the Muslim community believe it contains alcohol or pork products (forbidden by the Islamic faith). That’s not true, yet the misinformation has taken hold.’
The Hussein and Passi families are, sadly, a rarity.
As well as Blackburn, we visit London vaccination hubs to learn the extent of the vaccine-phobia, often fuelled by claims that the jab alters your DNA, gives governments data via a chip to track a person’s movement, or even infects them with the disease itself.
In Southall, West London, Sam Patel, 42, a finance manager, has brought his aunt. ‘My family have worn masks throughout the pandemic,’ he says. ‘Like many British Indian families, we have lots of relatives in the NHS, so we understand how necessary the vaccine is.’ Sam’s 69-year-old mother has just spent ten days in hospital after catching the virus, her family believes, during a late Christmas shopping visit to a local supermarket.
‘Covid-19 is so prevalent in our area of London,’ Sam says.
A few minutes later, an elderly couple leave the vaccine centre, the lady in an apple-green sari and wearing protective latex gloves.
She explains that she and her husband are both 85-year-old Muslims from the Bohra community — a sect of Islam that is telling its followers to have the vaccine.
‘There are many different Muslim groups,’ says the woman, who decides not to give her name. ‘Not all of them think as we do, and some are afraid of what it will put into them.’
There are other worries, too. Dr Chaand Nagpaul, leader of the British Medical Association, the doctors’ professional body, says government advice on social distancing, masks and vaccinations must be in multiple languages so everyone can understand.
Which makes the words of Blackburn fishmonger Zohar Mahaldar so disturbing.
He survived Covid-19 last year and hails from Bastwell, a suburb with ten mosques, where one in ten people tested positive for the virus last year. It’s a nine-minute drive from the cathedral vaccination hub. Before the latest lockdown, he told The Guardian he could not count how many people he’d had to ‘shoo out’ of his shop for not wearing a mask.
‘People here won’t take responsibility for their own health,’ he said. ‘They think it’s Allah’s will, that He will protect them from Covid-19. But I say to them: “Allah also gave you a brain”.’