The rollout of the coronavirus vaccine is well and truly underway, with jabs set to accelerate in the coming weeks as several new mass vaccine centres open their doors.
According to new regional data released today by the NHS, the Midlands, North East and Yorkshire and the South East have seen the highest numbers of vaccinations to date. More than 447,000 doses (including first and second jabs) have been administered in the Midlands, while the fewest (236,000) have been handed out in the East of England.
But can you drink before the vaccine, how quickly are you immune and are there any side effects? We have broken it down below...
Can I drink alcohol after the vaccine?
Alcohol is unlikely to make any difference to your health after you receive the vaccine, say experts, but out of an abundance of caution, some alcohol charities recommend leaving it two weeks before getting a drink.
Dr Fiona Sim, speaking in her capacity as chair of the independent medical advisory panel for alcohol charity Drinkaware, said: “We advise that you don't drink any alcohol for at least two days before, and at least two weeks after, you've been vaccinated, to try to ensure your immune system is at its best to respond to the vaccine and protect you.”
She is also a Senior Clinical Adviser at NHS England and a visiting professor at the University of Bedfordshire.
She added that the most important thing is getting the vaccine - and that applies to heavy drinkers as well as teetotalers.
How long does it take to develop immunity?
Public Health England says it will take “a few weeks” to develop immunity after your Covid vaccination - advice shared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), America's influential equivalent.
If you look at the trial data for the three Covid-19 vaccines currently approved for use in the UK, “you can see there’s a clear difference after three weeks,” says Trudie Lang, professor of Global Health Research at the University of Oxford.
How much immunity/protection will I have after the first dose?
The subject of vaccine doses has been the centre of much debate. In December, former prime minister Tony Blair urged the government to give as many people as possible an initial dose of a Covid vaccine - rather than preserving stocks so there is enough for second jabs. Although both the Pfizer-Biontech and Oxford University-Astrazeneca vaccines require two doses, Blair said that this could help bring the country out of lockdown sooner and said that the first dose gives “you substantial immunity.”
“Partial immunity does occur after the first dose and we can see some protection occurring on day 12 after the first dose, but best immunity is seven days after the second dose,” says Professor Sir Munir Pirmohamed, a member of The Commission on Human Medicine (CHM).
Once the second dose is administered – which comes 21 days after the first – people can expect full immunisation seven days later. This means that immunity can be expected 28 days after the first dose.
However, Dr Pankhania says that there is a chance you can catch the virus after receiving the vaccine. This means if you are clinically vulnerable or shielding, it’s important to continue taking precautions. “None of the vaccines offer 100 per cent protection, so there is a small chance that you won’t be immunised - even after receiving one,” he says. “The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 95 per cent effective, meaning roughly 5 per cent of people won’t be protected. This is more likely if you are older, or already immunocompromised. Others may still get ill, but not as severely as they would have been without the vaccine.”
Can I go out, go to work, or hug my grandkids after having it?
No. The vaccines have been proven to protect against serious illness, but they have not been proven to protect against transmission, says Prof Lang. So you should continue to follow social distancing guidelines after receiving the vaccine.
Those guidelines are only likely to be lifted once a large enough share of the UK’s elderly and vulnerable population have been vaccinated.
Do I need the vaccine if I've already had Covid?
Yes. Reinfection from Covid-19 is rare, and a recent study of healthcare workers by Public Health England found that immunity in most cases lasts at least five months (and maybe longer - five months was just how long the study lasted).
But it is impossible to know whether or not you are immune simply by having had the virus, and so experts still recommend getting a vaccine.
“Re-infection with COVID-19 is possible, [and a] vaccine should be offered to you regardless of whether you already had COVID-19 infection,” says the CDC
Does the vaccine stop me transmitting Covid to other people?
The short answer is, we don’t really know. Although it’s true that the vaccines do prevent life-threatening illnesses, none of the three approved vaccines - Moderna, AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech - have proven that they can stave off the virus altogether. It’s the same for transmission, too.
“If you are immunised, there is still a potential for you to develop a mild infection and as a result be infectious to other people,” says Dr Bharat Pankhania, senior consultant in communicable disease control at the University of Exeter.
Clinical trials of the covid vaccines show that they do substantially reduce the risk of becoming ill with the virus, but some people may still get infected and be able to spread the disease. “There may be a chance that it prevents you from being infectious too, but at the moment we can’t be 100 per cent sure,” adds Dr Pankhania.
This uncertainty may be a consequence of the speed at which the vaccine was developed. Normally, a trial would observe recipients of a vaccine for a longer period of time, showing not just whether they became ill, but whether they still transmit a virus, before a vaccine entered wide use. Although it’s likely that the coronavirus vaccines provide at least reduction in transmission, it’s too soon to know for sure, or to what degree.
“The proof of the pudding is in the testing. When we test these out in real life, with real people, we will know better,” says Dr Pankhania.
In practice, this means that as the coronavirus vaccine is rolled out, precautions such as social-distancing, mask-wearing and handwashing will remain a high priority.
Will I need to continue getting Covid tests after the vaccine?
Yes, if you have symptoms - even after getting both doses of the vaccine - you will need to get tested. This comes back to the idea that it could still be possible to transmit the virus after you are immunised.
“Medical professionals are very interested in testing people who are post immunisation but became infected, as it helps us in our research to tell whether the vaccine is working or not,” says Dr Pankhania. He adds that the outcome of your test won’t be affected by the vaccine, as the dose is too small to be counted as an infection.
Are there any side effects?
There are many rumours circulating about side effects of the coronavirus vaccine - most of them false. As a starting point, the NHS website lists a range of side-effects to be aware of. They are usually mild and will go away quickly on their own. They include:
A sore arm where the needle went in
Feeling or being sick
The NHS website says it’s fine to take painkillers if you are experiencing any of the side effects.
Out of all the European countries, Norway is offering the most cautious approach to the vaccine rollout. Norwegian officials said 23 people had died in the country a short time after receiving their first dose of the vaccine. Of those deaths, 13 have been autopsied, with the results suggesting that common side effects may have contributed to severe reactions in frail, elderly people, according to the Norwegian Medicines Agency.
Severe allergic reactions to the covid vaccine in the UK have been very rare. Last year the trials of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine were halted after a participant suffered an adverse reaction. However, clinical holds of trials are not uncommon, and the vaccine was approved by the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) last year.
Medical experts in the UK still agree that it’s far safer to get the vaccine than to not.
Will the vaccine give me Covid symptoms?
No. The vaccine might have some minor side-effects (see above), as would a flu jab or any other vaccination. But it will not give you Covid-19, or its symptoms.
“Mild reactions have been reported in some people, which could be things like a fever, or feeling slightly unwell,” says Prof Lang. “But that doesn't mean you've got Covid. And that's the same as a normal flu vaccine. The vaccine’s not live.”
Will I still need to wear a mask?
Yes. In fact, experts predict we will be wearing masks well into 2021 and beyond. This is because it will take many months to ensure that those who urgently need protection - health care workers, the elderly, people with serious underlying health conditions - get vaccinated. Several studies have linked populations that have high rates of mask-wearing with lower infection rates.
A recent study published in Health Affairs compared the coronavirus infection rate before and after masks were made mandatory in 15 states and the District of Columbia. It found that compulsory mask-wearing led to a slowdown in daily covid-19 growth rate, which became more apparent over time. The first five days after a mask mandate was issued, the daily growth rate slowed by 0.9 percentage points compared to the five days prior to the mandate; at three weeks, the daily growth rate had slowed by 2 percentage points.
“It is going to take a very long time to be sufficiently confident that a nation's population has been immunised, and that viral activity has dropped significantly enough to say that we no longer need to wear masks,” says Dr Pankhania.
He explains that the primary function of the vaccine is to stop vulnerable people dying; the second is to try and subdue the number of people who are infected. The third - eliminating the virus - only comes once we have achieved the first two goals. As Dr Pankhania sees it, there is a chance that we may never truly eliminate the virus, adding that we are “several years away from that point.”