STICKING to Nicola Sturgeon’s honest, open approach – while avoiding Boris Johnson-style bluster – is the best way to ensure the public complies with the coronavirus vaccination programme.

That’s according to a top scientific expert who told The National how governments can counter bogus anti-vaxx claims – as well as ease legitimate concerns about a brand new treatment – in an era of disinformation.

Stephen Reicher, a social psychologist at the University of St Andrews, told The National that governments in the UK must treat the public with respect at every stage to ensure a successful roll-out. He said Sturgeon has already set an example with her transparent response to the pandemic, while warning against Johnson’s “world-leading” rhetoric.

The professor has written extensively about how people respond in times of crisis, examining issues of communication and compliance. He is also a member of Independent Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) – a group of experts set up in May to provide advice to the UK Government and public amid fears the official Sage group was subject to “dangerous” political interference.

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It has been announced that the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine has been approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), with the First Minister confirming the first jabs will be administered in Scotland on Tuesday.

Reicher split those with concerns about the vaccine into two distinct groups: those who have reasonable questions about a jab developed in record time; and conspiracy theorists with an “unconditional opposition” to vaccinations.

The The Pfizer/BioNTech jag has been approved in record time, taking just 10 months in a process that normally takes around 10 years.

The treatment was developed so speedily because the trial phases have overlapped – instead of taking place sequentially as is standard practice. Nevertheless, the developers were able to apply the same safety testing regime that vaccines developed under normal circumstances would go through.

Dr June Raine, head of the MHRA, said in a Downing Street conference earlier: “The safety of the public will always come first. This recommendation has only been given by the MHRA following the most rigorous scientific assessment of every piece of data so that it meets the required strict standards of safety, of effectiveness and of quality.”

She added that the checks conducted by the MHRA on the Pfizer vaccine are “equivalent to all international standards”.

The National: Public trust in Boris Johnson's government is lowPublic trust in Boris Johnson's government is low

Disseminating this information, and responding to the public’s concerns, is crucial to ensuring widespread compliance with the inoculation process, Reicher said. This is particularly important in the years following the Brexit referendum and the rise of populism, he explained, which have helped to alter people’s relationship with authority and sources of information.

“Openness, transparency and listening to people will be absolutely critical,” the professor stated.

To ensure this, he called for the Scottish Government to establish a mechanism through which people can ask questions and receive answers about the treatment.

The professor said: “It comes back to one of the things the First Minister has talked about – there has got to be an adult conversation. It can’t be that paternalistic way you treat children: ‘Trust us, everything’s going to be ok.’

“It’s got to be a two-way dialogue where questions can be raised and answers can be given.”

The Scottish Government is in a good position to get the public on board with its vaccination programme, with levels of public trust in Holyrood standing at more than 70%, Reicher pointed out. Westminster, however, faces more of an uphill battle, with more than a third of respondents telling the latest British Social Attitudes Survey that they "almost never" trust the UK Government.

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Reicher cited the “emblematic moment” when coronavirus cases spiked in university halls in September as an example of the two government’s differing approaches during the pandemic. He praised Holyrood ministers for treating the public as “part of the solution and not the problem”, whereas Downing Street “effectively blamed” young people.

The expert called on Tory ministers to learn their lessons from such incidents to avoid eroding public trust further as the inoculation scheme begins. He warned “hubris will be our ruin” as he called on politicians to “avoid too much hype and be absolutely explicit about any limitations”.

The St Andrew’s University academic explained: “Of course there are going to be problems. Every vaccine has problems. It’s just that hopefully the advantages far, far outweigh the negatives.

“One of the problems the UK Government has had is to rather overstate things. Everything has to be world-class, everything has to be perfect. This vaccine is going to make a huge difference but it’s not going to work all the time – 95% [efficacy] is pretty good, but it’s not 100%.”

The Pfizer-BioNTech jab is given as two injections, 21 days apart. Immunity begins to kick in after the first dose but reaches its full effect seven days after the second dose. Acknowledging this, Reicher concluded on a cautionary note.

Noting that a vaccine “can only ever be part of the solution”, he added: “We’ve got to be really careful with that notion of the cavalry riding over the hill and it’s all going to be over. We should be massively heartened, but hubris could be our downfall.”