I’m not a massive football fan, but I love a penalty shoot-out. There’s nothing more thrilling than to watch the crowds rise up in anticipation and hear their excitement build into a deafening crescendo. But the crash of disappointment, from that height, is unbearable.

That surge and implosion played out in my head yesterday, as the positive results of a global frontrunner coronavirus vaccine – developed at our very own Oxford University – were released on the same day as a survey revealing that more than a quarter of Britons would likely refuse a vaccine, even when it had been proven to work safely.

Asked whether or not they agreed with the statement “I would not want to be vaccinated against the coronavirus if a high-quality vaccine were available” last week, 14 per cent of the 2,065 Brits questioned by research agency ORB International came back with a defiant ‘Yes’, while a further 13 per cent were undecided.

Let’s give the undecided a pass (for now). After all, what differentiates adults from children is our ability to assimilate all the information out there – the historical facts, science and statistics – and use those things, along with our logic, to form intelligent judgements. It’s called informed consent, and it can take a moment. Anti-vaxxers of any kind, however – from the 14 per cent identified in this survey, to the estimated 7.4 per cent and rising in the UK (that’s one in 30) – make their judgements according to misinformed dissent. Otherwise known as conspiracy theories.

Make no mistake: that’s what today’s anti-vaxxers are. Fuelled by social media and the same provincial paranoia-consuming US gun nuts (35 per cent of Americans are convinced their government will turn tyrannical, hence the need for that semi-automatic assembled AR-10 rifles), they privilege witchcraft-like whimsy over fact. And they may be OK with being labelled conspiracy theorists.

They may be happy to stand in front of a mirror and say out loud: “I believe that, as a direct descendent of Vlad the Impaler, Prince Charles is a vampire. I believe that chemicals in the water are turning us all into homosexuals. I believe that Paul McCartney was replaced by a lookalike after a fatal traffic accident in 1969, that Stonehenge was built by aliens, and that ever since Edward Jenner inoculated a 13-year-old boy with cowpox in 1798, the British medical community have been working with the government on a secret plan to kill us all off…”

The “whys” tend to be hazy in conspiracy theory-land. Which means nobody can answer the most pressing question of all: if the plan is to kill us all off, why wouldn’t the government be letting a virus that has already successfully eliminated 6 million people worldwide and infected 14.5 million more rage away? But anti-vaxxers are often Covid-deniers into the bargain. And this, along with the weaponry they use to fight their corner – a robust mix of shoddy science and erroneous research from discredited physicians such as Andrew Wakefield – makes either argument or discussion futile.

Yet understanding what motivates this stubborn and growing swathe of society is important.

It’s one thing for anti-vaxxers to refuse to allow their children to have the MMR – and this year, the take-up declined for the fifth year in a row, prompting a mumps and measles spike – but another for them to become the only impediment between us and normal life as we once knew it.

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