COVID-19: Vaccine benefits may be outweighed by people ignoring restrictions, scientists warn

·4-min read

The benefits of the coronavirus vaccine roll-out may be outweighed by a rise in infections from people believing they no longer need to follow COVID rules, the government's scientific advisers have warned.

A survey found more than a quarter of people (29%) planned to adhere less strictly to coronavirus restrictions once they have received a vaccine, according to the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B).

The group has urged the government to develop a communications strategy to ensure people stick to COVID rules after being vaccinated, given the "very large cost to health, wellbeing and the economy" if they fail to abide by the measures.

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The message should be given by "trusted sources who are believed to have knowledge and are distanced from distrusted political figures", it said.

In a paper published on Friday, the SPI-B warned that modelling suggested people failing to follow COVID rules "could more than offset the benefits of vaccination by increasing infection rates particularly in the early months, before there is a high degree of coverage".

"While concerns over the vaccination programme have mainly focused on the logistics and funding of vaccine delivery, it is important that consideration be given to potential unintended consequences," the SPI-B said.

"One of the unintended consequences of vaccination is the risk of reducing population adherence to other protective behaviours such as hand-cleansing, mask wearing, maintaining physical distance, limiting interaction with large groups and adhering to quarantine."

It added: "Adherence might decline if people feel less of a need for protection, or the rules and guidance seem less salient to them as attention focuses more on the vaccine."

The SPI-B, which advises the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said businesses and politicians "may further undermine efforts to promote adherence" if they start encouraging people to resume normal activities due to a rise in the rate of people being vaccinated.

"(For example), bars including 'all our staff are vaccinated' as part of their COVID messaging, this could have a negative impact on adherence to other protective behaviours," the group added.

A national survey in early December found that 50% of people said they would still follow whatever coronavirus rules or restrictions were in place after receiving a vaccine, the document said.

However, 29% said they would adhere less strictly than before, with people aged 18 to 24 most likely to say this, it added.

"Worryingly, 11% said that they would 'probably no longer follow the rules'," the SPI-B said.

The group urged the government to develop a communication strategy "to ensure that people fully understand why it is vital to continue to adhere to protective behaviours, whether or not they have been vaccinated".

It added: "Ensure that people realise that vaccination, however effective, leaves some risk.

"The uncertainty about protection from infection or transmission and length of protection, despite vaccination protecting from serious COVID-19, should be stressed."

The SPI-B also encouraged ministers to "add monitoring of vaccine status and vaccine-related beliefs and behaviours" to their existing methods of examining whether people are sticking to COVID-19 rules.

On Friday, the UK approved a third coronavirus jab, the Moderna vaccine, following the roll-out of vaccines from Pfizer and Oxford/AstraZeneca.

Seven million doses of the Moderna vaccine had already been ordered by the UK government with a further 10 million expected to follow - but it will likely not become available until March.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said 1.26 million COVID vaccine jabs had been given in England so far, with 113,000 in Scotland, 49,000 in Wales, and 46,000 in Northern Ireland.

The government has set a target to deliver first doses to 14 million of the most vulnerable by 15 February.

The UK's coronavirus R number - which indicates how quickly the virus is spreading - has risen to between 1 and 1.4, it was announced on Friday.

However the figure does not take into account the latest national lockdown due to a delay in the data.

Meanwhile, new figures show more than 30,000 fines have been handed out by police for breaches of COVID-19 laws since they came into force.

Data published by the National Police Chiefs Council on Friday revealed a total of 32,329 fixed penalty notices were issued by forces in England and Wales between March 27 and December 21 last year.