A “deradicalisation” programme, similar to that given to former terrorists or cult members, might be the only way to dissuade hardcore anti-vaxxers from their beliefs, one psychology expert claims.

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, chair in cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol stressed however that many of these are likely to be “marginalised” people who are “very difficult to reach for anything”, and for whom access is likely to be the biggest issue rather than psychological or ideological factors.

But a small selection of “hardcore refuseniks” may be difficult to reach by conventional means due to their beliefs being so ingrained.

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He told the PA news agency: “They’ll refuse anything – ‘I’m not going to wear a mask’, ‘I’m not going to get vaccinated’, ‘I don’t think climate change is happening’, ‘Covid is a hoax’, and, you know, ‘Hillary Clinton is actually a reptilian shapeshifter’.

“You’re getting to people who hold a cluster of very exotic beliefs – now, they’re very difficult to reach.”

He claims to reach more moderate people who remain unvaccinated include assigning appointments rather than asking people to book their own or setting pop up clinics in places like supermarkets.

Another measure would be introducing a vaccine mandate, which he said, “will disgruntle a few people” but “can be effective”.

A vaccine mandate would be effective but would disgruntle some people (PA)

However, for those with more extreme views, he claims these methods may not be effective.

He added: “In the ideal world, time and money permitting, you can engage even those people in a very slow, long-term process where you affirm their right to have those beliefs… rather than telling them something about themselves they don’t want to hear, let’s put it that way.

“So you tell them something positive, and then engage in what is effectively the same as a deradicalisation process for former terrorists, or cult members.

“Because we’re really talking, when we get down to that small number of committed refusers, we’re talking about the psychology of cults and extremism, and it’s a very similar psychology.”

Online misinformation, he said, is a contributing factor to radical beliefs. While noting some steps have been taken to remove false claims, sites like Facebook and YouTube are “not doing enough”.

“One of the reasons these hardcore refuseniks exist is because they can live in their own ecosystem of misinformation,” he said.

Among those who continue to refuse the Covid vaccines is 44-year-old Paul Barrett from Newcastle, who believes they are “dangerous”.

Online misinformation can be dangerous (PA)

Mr Barrett said he has researched the topic by watching videos and reading articles online and believes the public is “being lied to”.

“Nothing could make me decide to have this jab, it’s dangerous,” he told PA.

“I’ve had Covid and it’s true I was very ill and could barely breathe for over a week but I survived through my immune system, I’m willing to continue to trust said immune system rather than a jab with so many cases of bad, life-ending side affects.

“I believe we’re being lied to.”

Online Covid misinformation is “a very serious public health issue”, according to one expert.

Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, told PA: “People have died, and more still are at greater risk of suffering from Covid, because they got their medical information from Facebook and other social media sites.

“These platforms are chronically polluted because anti-vaxxers have been allowed to dump toxic misinformation into people’s feeds on a daily basis for years with impunity.

“Most people who haven’t been jabbed aren’t what you might refer to as ‘committed anti-vaxxers’ – they are merely vaccine-hesitant, because they’ve been deliberately and cynically targeted with a steady campaign of half-truths, baseless conspiracy theories and outright lies.”