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More than one in five Australians said they would be “probably or definitely” unwilling to get a COVID-19 vaccine when it became available, according to a new study from the Australian National University (ANU).

The findings, published in a new report, Change in vaccine willingness in Australia: August 2020 to January 2021, produced by ANU’s Centre for Social Research and Methods, reveal a “substantial” shift in popular consensus regarding the vaccine, with more than 3,500 Australians surveyed.

While just 12.7% said they would “probably or definitely unwilling” to get vaccinated in August last year, 21.7% put forth the same response in January this year, meaning the number of Australians disinterested or unwilling to take the vaccine has nearly doubled.

Within this group, there was also an increase in people who won’t take the vaccine at all, with that number jumping from 5.5% (August 2020) to 8.4% (January 2021).

Across all respondents, more than three in 10 Australians were less likely to get a vaccine now than they were in August last year, while slightly less than 20% of respondents went from being “definitely willing” to get vaccinated to “probably willing” to do so.

The study also identified that females, Indigenous Australians, those who speak a language other than English at home and those who have not completed Year 12 have all become less willing to get a vaccine since August 2020.

Professor Nicholas Biddle, a co-author of the study, said any campaign to improve the population’s willingness to take the vaccine should focus on those groups.

“These population groups are arguably the most urgent focus of any public health campaigns to improve willingness,” Professor Biddle said.

“This is because they have low willingness to start with, but also because there is the potential opportunity to bring their willingness back to what it was in August 2020 when there was a smaller gap with the rest of the Australian population.

“There is a real need to consider a significantly enhanced public health campaign in languages other than English [and] there is also a need to convey information to the general public in a way that is informative, reassuring and salient for those without a degree.”

The survey also looked at identifying reasons why people weren’t willing to take a vaccine, with a belief that the seriousness of COVID-19 was overplayed, a distrust in the health system or a general lack of optimism about the next 12 months all major themes.

The findings come as various segments of the country get ready to receive the Pfizer vaccination, with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison receiving a vaccination over the weekend.

While Australia is currently ranked 8th out of 98 countries by the Lowy Institute for the effectiveness of its COVID-19 response, Professor Biddle said that investigating this reasoning will be a “crucial” part of Australia’s COVID recovery, given that the vaccination rollout is well underway.

“Clearly our leaders, policymakers and health experts need to work out why more Australians are unlikely to get a vaccine, particularly as it is about to be administered across the country,” Professor Biddle said.

“While not a magic bullet, a vaccine and its successful delivery across our society is absolutely crucial to Australia’s COVID recovery.”

The ANU’s study, which received financial support from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and is part of a broader Centre for Social Research Methods COVID-19 “monitoring program”, is available to read here.