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Brexit-voting areas of UK have highest COVID-19 death rate, study finds

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By Sandrine Amiel  & Orlando Crowcroft
A banner against giving children coronavirus vaccines is displayed during a protest on Parliament Square opposite the Houses of Parliament, in London, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021
A banner against giving children coronavirus vaccines is displayed during a protest on Parliament Square opposite the Houses of Parliament, in London, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021   -   Copyright  Matt Dunham/AP

COVID-19 is killing a high proportion of people in regions of the UK that voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, a new report has claimed.

Research by Ludovic Phalippou of Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford and Betty H.T. Wu of the University of Glasgow has claimed to have found a direct correlation between Brexit-voting districts of the UK and those that have the highest rate of fatalities from COVID-19.

It reveals that the boroughs of Boston, Great Yarmouth, South Holland, and Hartlepool, for example, have the fourth highest fatalities from the virus in the UK and the biggest share of the vote for Brexit, with all four districts voting more than 75% for leave in 2016. By contrast, the 20 boroughs with the lowest death rates all voted heavily for Remain.

For the authors, the results suggest that the same people who were swayed by the arguments in favour of Brexit -- which was defined by a distrust of political and financial elites and populist rhetoric shared via social media -- are also those that resist getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and have been hostile to lockdown measures including curfews and mask-wearing.

"There is a group of people in the population who just rejects any official advice, any mainstream advice, any expert advice,” Phalippou told Euronews.

"The question then becomes for researchers, how do you capture these people? How do you have a proxy for these people? Which areas have more of these people?"

Phalippou and Wu said that the result should have "very important consequences for policy” and called into question initiatives such as mandatory vaccination, which was recently imposed in Austria.

Many of those that do not want to get vaccinated distrust both pharmaceutical companies and politicians already - and not entirely without reason, Phalippou said.

"There is actually a big academic literature showing how corrupt the process of approving medication is. So there is some underlying truth [to some of these beliefs],” he said.

"We need to take them seriously, we need to understand what they say, how they feel, and how we can counter them and their mindset.”

Jonathan Berman, author of Anti-vaxxers: How to Challenge a Misinformed Movement, told Euronews the correlation “made some sense” and found echoes in other areas of the world where populist movements, such as Brexit, had success in recent years.

Recent work in the US, for example, had found a similar crossover between Donald Trump voters and COVID-19 deaths.

“Brexit was a very different vote from [Trump, but] the thread I would draw between the two is that both campaigns were populist causes, which by definition are framed as regular people opposed to the elite,” Berman said.

The anti-vax movement, he said, appealed to those who were susceptible to populist ideas and who distrusted elites, and the politicians like Trump that have sought to capitalise on that.

“Epidemiologists, health boards, and virologists are cast as the elite,” he said.

'Eastern Europe'

Others suggest that while there may be a correlation between Brexit voters and regions that are suffering hardest from COVID-19, it is too simple to draw a direct line between leave supporters and vaccine scepticism - not least because even in the areas with the highest COVID-19 death rates, vaccination rates are above 60%, far higher than elsewhere in Europe.

In Boston and Skegness, for example, where only 18.9% of residents voted to remain in 2016 and where the death rate per thousand people is 3.1, double that of the remain-voting boroughs at the other end of the scale, more than 66% of people are now double-vaccinated.

Matt Warman, the Conservative MP for Boston and Skegness, told Euronews that the high death toll in his district was likely due to a range of factors, including its relatively large elderly population - who are more susceptible to the virus, generally.

As for the correlation between areas that voted Brexit and fatalities, he suggested it could be for a different reason.

“Areas that voted Brexit in 2016 tend to have large numbers of people who were born in Eastern Europe, and we know that there are problems with vaccination rates within the Eastern European community in the UK,” Warman, who has been MP since 2015, told Euronews.

This problem, he said, is exacerbated by misinformation being circulated online on social media, often originating in these individuals’ home countries, where vaccination rates are far lower than in the UK and anti-vax sentiment far more mainstream.

“There has not been enough focus by social media companies on misinformation in other languages within the UK,” he said.

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