Covid vaccinations: when can we expect them to start in UK?

When can we realistically expect vaccinations to start in the UK?

We can expect the very first jab on the same day the first vaccine is licensed for use in the UK, with a big fanfare. That could be within weeks. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) will break all records – although they insist without cutting corners – to go through the data and give authorisation.

Pfizer/BioNTech was first to submit its data. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has said there will be 10m doses available in the UK by the end of the year out of the 40m he has ordered. But there are huge logistical issues, because it has to be kept at temperatures of -70C, so getting it to all the care home residents and staff who are the first priority, followed by the over-80s, will not be straightforward.

Who else is in the first phase of vaccination and when will the rest get a jab?

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has set the order of priority for the whole of the UK, mostly according to age. Care home residents and staff will be followed by the over-80s and healthcare workers. Next are the over-75s, then the over-70s and so on. People with underlying health conditions of any age will be vaccinated ahead of the under-65s.

The first phase includes everyone over 50, or about 22 million people. The JCVI says a decision has yet to be taken on priorities in the rest of the population, whose risk of severe illness is low.

The UK government’s joint committee on vaccination and immunisation has published a list of groups of people who will be prioritised to receive a vaccine for Covid-19. The list is:

1 All those 80 years of age and over and health and social care workers.

2 All those 75 and over.

3 All those 70 and over.

4 All those 65 and over.

5 Adults under 65 at high at risk of serious disease and mortality from Covid-19.

6 Adults under 65 at moderate risk of at risk of serious disease and mortality from Covid-19.

7 All those 60 and over.

8 All those 55 and over.

9 All those 50 and over.

10 Rest of the population.

Enough supplies of vaccine to complete even the first phase may depend on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine being licensed. The UK has ordered 100m doses, and it can be stored at normal fridge temperatures.

When will social distancing end?

Hancock has said the restrictions can be loosened once all the over-50s, younger people with health conditions and NHS and care workers have been vaccinated. He has said the bulk of vaccination for those groups will take place in January to March, and hopes that by Easter it may be possible to end social distancing.

However, that assumes transmission of the virus is blocked by the vaccine, as well as severe illness, hospitalisations and death – which is what the trials have mainly been measuring. There are hints in the Oxford vaccine data that people who are vaccinated may not have asymptomatic infection which they can pass to others.

How can we tell if the vaccination programme is working?

We will see the hospital numbers and deaths fall. It won’t be immediate. The vaccines are two shots, three or four weeks apart, and full protection does not kick in until at least a week after the second dose. If there is a lot of virus around in the early months of next year, the effects will be more obvious than if the virus has been suppressed through lockdowns and tier restrictions. But within a couple of months of the vaccination programme getting under way, there should be significant drops in the numbers of people getting ill.

What percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated for herd immunity to kick in?

Herd immunity through vaccination varies from one disease to another. For measles, which is highly contagious, 95% of children need to be vaccinated to prevent outbreaks. For Covid-19, it is estimated to be less, but what proportion of the population needs to be vaccinated depends on how effective the vaccine is. A paper published in October in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine calculated that 60% of people would need to be vaccinated if the vaccine was 80% effective. With a 70% effective vaccine, 75% of the population would need to be immunised.

Will everyone in the world have access to a Covid vaccine? – video explainer

At what point might international travel be allowed again?

Vaccination is likely to allow us all to travel again. Certificates will probably be required at border controls, just as they are for yellow fever in countries where the disease is endemic. They will probably become necessary to set foot on an aircraft. Some airlines, such as Qantas, have already said they will require a vaccination certificate from all passengers. “I think that’s going to be a common thing talking to my colleagues in other airlines around the globe,” said Alan Joyce, the Australian airline’s boss. There will be people who cannot be vaccinated, so some sort of formal exemption certificate will be needed for them.

Can we plan an Easter holiday abroad?

For all Hancock’s optimism about the return to more normal life by Easter, it may be a bit early to buy tickets. Even if the UK moves really fast on vaccination, much of the rest of the world will not get supplies or be able to use them quickly and restrictions will probably still apply. Also, a vaccine that is 90% effective will still leave one in 10 people unprotected, so until the levels of virus in countries drops right down, it would be wise not to party or throw away the mask.


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