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Coronavirus vaccines explained

The news of the approval of coronavirus vaccines in the UK has provided a sense of hope. Whether you want your vaccine as soon as it becomes available to you, or you’re a bit hesitant about getting it, it’s important to rely on information you can trust.

Is the vaccine safe?

Yes. The UK regulator and Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (the independent experts that advise Government on all vaccines) have assessed all approved vaccines to be safe and able to offer a high level of protection against becoming severely unwell with coronavirus including for older people.

While there will be different vaccines available, no one will receive a vaccine that hasn’t been properly approved and shown to be safe.

When will I get the vaccine?

Coronavirus vaccines will be made available to all adults at some point. We don’t have enough information yet to know exactly when that might be, but we do know it’s going to require patience as not everyone’s going to be able to get vaccinated at the same time. 

Currently all those in cohorts 1-9 below are eligible for a vaccine.

To make sure those most in need of a vaccine receive one as soon as possible, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has advised the Government to prioritise certain groups. 

The initial priority groups are set out below, starting with those considered high priority:

  1. Older adults that are a resident in a care home and their care workers.
  2. Everyone aged 80+ and all health and social care workers.
  3. Everyone aged 75+.
  4. Everyone aged 70+ and all those considered clinically extremely vulnerable and have been shielding.
  5. Everyone aged 65+.
  6. Everyone aged 16-64 with an underlying health condition which puts them at higher risk of becoming seriously unwell, and unpaid carers.
  7. Everyone 60+.
  8. Everyone 55+.
  9. Everyone 50+.

Age is the most important risk factor for being admitted to hospital and dying from coronavirus, so the oldest age groups and older people living in care homes are a top priority.

This priority list provides a framework. However, that’s not to say everyone single resident in a care home will receive a vaccine before any health workers receive theirs, for example. Due to logistical factors, it might be this order might vary a bit in practice, and some parts of the country may make faster progress through the priority groups than others.

Following the above groups being vaccinated the JCVI have advised that it’s best to continue to prioritise people by age so it’s likely that people will be invited in the following order:

  1. Everyone aged 40-49
  2. Everyone aged 30-39
  3. Everyone aged 18-29

I provide care for someone, when will I get the vaccine?

People who provide significant care or support for an older or disabled person in the home may be classed as carers.

If you’re eligible for Carer’s Allowance or a sole or primary carer of an elderly or disabled person who is clinically vulnerable to coronavirus then you’re eligible to receive the vaccine as part of priority group six who are in the process of being invited for vaccination now.

If you receive, or are entitled to Carer’s Allowance, are registered as a carer on your GP records, are registered as a carer with your local authority following a carers assessment or are supported by a local carer support organisation then you should be contacted to be vaccinated in the coming weeks. You may be contacted by your GP or through the National Booking System or both, the communication you receive will include information on how to book

If you're not registered as a carer anywhere or aren’t sure then you can try booking on the NHS website or by calling 119 and there are a few questions to answer to check whether you are eligible.

You can find more information for carers on the Carers UK website.

How can I get the vaccine?

Currently the top 9 priority groups listed above are eligible for the vaccine. If you’re in one of those groups then you should be able to book online on the NHS website or by calling 119 between 7am and 11pm Monday - Sunday. This will provide appointments at a large vaccination centre or pharmacy site.

To book an appointment it would be helpful to have your NHS number, which you can get from communication from the NHS or from some medications, but if you’re registered with a GP you can still book without an NHS number. You’re also able to book an appointment on behalf of someone else.

If there isn’t a suitable appointment or venue available, then you should keep trying as more venues and appointments are added frequently.

If you’re housebound and unable to attend a vaccination centre, then you should contact your GP practice who should support you in receiving a vaccination at home.

When you do get contacted to attend you may receive multiple invitations with different options and you can choose where to get your vaccine, if you receive a letter from the national booking service for the large vaccination centres or pharmacy services then you can wait to be contacted by your local GP service if a more local service is more accessible. If you’ve already had a vaccine or booked an appointment, then you don’t need to respond. You may receive a phone call, email, text message or letter. So it’s useful to keep an eye out to make sure you receive the message. If your contact details have changed lately, now’s a good time to make sure your GP practice has the most up to date information.

There’s no time limit for getting vaccinated. If you’ve already been contacted about an appointment and haven’t taken it up or you’ve declined, and you’re in one of the top 9 priority groups then you’re still able to book a vaccine and can either follow the instructions above on booking an appointment, or follow the instructions on any communication you may have received.

Where will I get the vaccine?

Vaccinations will take place at one of the following settings:

  • at a hospital
  • in the community – through GPs and pharmacists
  • in specially designated vaccination centres
  • in your home if necessary.

The number of vaccination sites is increasing all the time to help vaccinate as many people as possible.

If you can't travel to get a vaccine, you will still be contacted. The NHS is working on special arrangements for people who are housebound.

What will happen at my appointment?

Make sure you arrive on time but not too early for your appointment to minimise contact between people getting vaccinated. Where possible you should attend alone for social distancing measures, however if you need support in attending then one carer or family member can attend the appointment with you.

Remember a face covering if you’re able to wear one and practice social distancing and good, regular hand washing to prevent the spread of infection.

When you attend your appointment, you’ll be asked:

  • How you’re feeling and if you have any symptoms that would stop you from being able to have the vaccine.
  • About your medical history.
  • If you have any questions.
  • To consent to having the vaccine.

You’ll need to bring:

  • A face covering, unless you are exempt from wearing one
  • Your booking reference number if your appointment is at a large vaccination centre
  • Proof of your occupation if you’re a health or care worker

What to expect:

  • All places offering vaccines will have social distancing and other measures in place to keep you safe.
  • Depending on which vaccine you receive, you may be asked to wait for 15 minutes after having the vaccination.
  • You’ll be given a leaflet about what to expect after your vaccination to take home with you.
  • You’ll be given a record card.
  • Your next appointment will be in the period up to 12 weeks after your first vaccination and in the same place as your first one.

Keep your record card safe and make sure you attend your next appointment. After receiving your first and second doses of the vaccine you must continue to follow government coronavirus rules and guidance. It’s important to return for your second dose as this maximises long term immunity.

The NHS has provided some information about what to expect at your appointment, including what to bring to it.

What are the side effects of the vaccine?

Each vaccine has gone through trials to ensure the risk of serious side effects is very low. However, as with other vaccines such as the flu vaccine, there are some common side effects. These could include:

  • A sore, 'heavy' arm where you had your injection.
  • Feeling tired.
  • A headache.
  • General achiness or mild flu-like symptoms.

For a small proportion of people, their glands might swell. If this happens, you're advised to take paracetamol.

If you do experience any of these side effects, they're likely to last no longer than a week. But if they get worse or you're concerned you should call NHS 111 and explain your symptoms and let them know you've had a vaccination.

Any side effects you experience can also be reported to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency's (MHRA) Yellow Card Scheme by your doctor.

Serious reactions to vaccines are uncommon but can happen. People with an allergy to the ingredients of the vaccine should not receive it, however those with other allergies such as food and other medicines are able to receive the vaccine. If you’re concerned, speak to your healthcare professional for further advice.

Why do I have to wait for my second dose?

Each of the vaccines which have so far been approved for use in the UK require 2 doses to provide good, long lasting protection from coronavirus.

Initially, the Government announced that people would receive their second dose of the coronavirus vaccine within 21 to 28 days of having the first. This has been extended so that people may have their second dose of the vaccine up to 12 weeks later. This will allow as many people as possible to receive their first dose in the quickest time frame.

This decision has been made following the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, the independent expert body which advises Government on all vaccines, and has been approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the body which regulates and licenses all drugs in the UK.

The JCVI examined the evidence and concluded both first doses of the vaccines provide substantial protection from severe coronavirus disease within 2-3 weeks of receiving the first vaccination. Further research is on-going, but the JCVIs expert view, based on the available evidence, is that this level of protection is unlikely to substantially diminish over the 12-week period and the second booster dose will still act to ensure that protection is long-lasting.

What happens after I've had my vaccination?

While being vaccinated provides good protection from becoming unwell with coronavirus and we’re all looking forward to be able to see our friends and family again, it’s very important that when you have been vaccinated you continue to follow social distancing rules and any government guidance on restrictions.

This includes:

  • Self-isolating if you’re required to do so, for more information see here.
  • Maintaining social distancing measures from those not in your household or support bubble.
  • Booking a test and self-isolating if you have symptoms of coronavirus.
  • Wearing a face covering if you are able and where it is required to do so.
  • Following Government guidance on meeting with others in your area.

This is because:

  • You will not be protected straight away. Depending on the vaccine you may take 2 or 3 weeks to develop immunity.
  • No vaccine is 100% effective. Even after you’ve waited those first few weeks, and following your second dose, your vaccination may not offer you complete protection from becoming unwell with coronavirus.
  • Restrictions will remain in place as long as there are large numbers of people in the UK with coronavirus.
  • We don’t yet know how well the coronavirus vaccines work at preventing transmission of the virus. It’s therefore possible that after vaccination you could catch coronavirus but have no symptoms, so be able to pass it on unknowingly to someone else.

Will I need to prove I've had a vaccine?

There are ongoing discussions about how you might need to prove you've had your vaccine. However, there are already instances, such as travel, where you're being asked to prove if you've been vaccinated. 

You can now display your coronavirus vaccine record on the NHS app or request a paper version by calling 119. But there are some things worth noting:

  • The NHS app is different to the specific NHS coronavirus app which is being used for track and trace. 
  • If you already have the app you should make sure you're using the most up to date version. 
  • It's recommended you've registered the app at least two weeks before travelling.
  • The app doesn't yet show coronavirus test results.
  • If you're requesting a paper version, this can be done 5 days after your second vaccine and can take up to 5 days to arrive. 
  • You shouldn't ask your GP for proof of vaccination.

Different countries will have different entry requirements and for some destinations, you'll still need to be tested before entering, regardless of whether you've had your vaccine.  

What don't we know about the vaccine yet?

While there’s plenty we do know about a vaccine, there are still things we don’t know for sure. This includes:

  • whether the vaccine only prevents symptoms or also stops infections being transmitted from one person to another. As a result, we will all need to continue to be careful even after we have received a vaccine.
  • how long immunity lasts after you’ve had a vaccination and how often you might need to get vaccinated. Experts will monitor the vaccine and what happens next, but it may be some years before we get the answer.

I have another question about vaccines

How do vaccines work?

There are many types of vaccine, but the purpose of a vaccine is always the same: to train our immune system to respond to a germ as if it has seen it before and remembers how to tackle it. There are vaccines against illnesses caused by all sorts of germs, but as coronavirus is caused by a type of virus we’ll focus on those here.

Vaccines teach our bodies to recognise antigens. This is the part of the virus that attaches to the cells in our body – something they need to do to replicate and cause an infection. Your body’s immune system produces antibodies that ‘match’ the antigens from a specific virus and prevent them from attaching to cells.

Traditional vaccines contain either a modified or weakened form of the virus, including the antigen. Some vaccines which use newer technology contain the genetic code for the virus’ antigen instead, so your body produces the antigen itself. Both methods have the same result, they prompt our immune system to make antibodies that ‘match’ the antigen.

After vaccination, if the virus gets into our body, our immune system remembers what to do and produces antibodies to fight it. This means the infection doesn’t get a chance to take hold and we are immune to the virus. Vaccination means we can stimulate this immunity without becoming unwell with the disease in the first place.

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How are vaccines developed?

There’s a careful process for developing vaccines to make sure they’re both safe and effective.

  1. Scientists identify the specific antigen to the virus that causes the disease, then develop a vaccine to trial.
  2. Initial tests take place to see if a vaccine is safe and will lead to immunity. These tests will take place ‘in vitro’ (in a group of cells which have been grown in a laboratory and aren’t part of an animal) or ‘in vivo’ (in animals).
  3. Then there are three stages of trials and at each of these stages, the vaccine is tested on more people. 
  4. The third stage of testing involves tens of thousands of volunteers. Some are randomly selected to receive the vaccine and some receive a placebo. Neither the scientists or volunteers know who gets selected for each.
  5. Volunteers are then monitored closely to determine whether people catch the disease and if there are any side effects. Monitoring continues to determine how long immunity lasts.
  6. When these stages are completed, the vaccine must then be licensed.

Wherever a vaccine was developed, to be used in the UK it must be granted approval by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). They examine the available information about the vaccine, how well it works and whether it’s safe before giving approval. Once approved and licensed, the vaccine needs to be produced in large enough quantities before finally being given to the population.

The coronavirus vaccines will all go through these stages before they are approved for use.

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How have the coronavirus vaccines been developed so quickly?

Developing a vaccine often takes some time. This is usually because research and pharmaceutical companies can’t commit to funding the whole process. There are often long gaps between phases while organisations wait for funding before moving to the next stage. Even when a vaccine is approved, it takes some time for pharmaceutical companies to set up manufacturing and produce the vaccine in the quantities needed for public use.

As the coronavirus pandemic has had such an impact globally, researchers and pharmaceutical companies have worked together to reduce the amount of time spent waiting between the phases of development.

Funding and approval for these vaccines has been made a priority. Governments around the world have ‘pre-ordered’ doses which means pharmaceutical companies have been able to set up manufacturing for vaccines earlier than usual.

The NHS is already preparing a vaccination programme so it can start vaccinating people as soon as vaccines are approved and available.

While this collaborative approach means vaccines will be available sooner, it doesn’t mean any shortcuts have been taken. Each vaccine that’s approved for use will have been through all the essential stages in its development.

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Should I get a vaccine?

Whether or not you decide to get a vaccine is an individual decision. The vaccine won’t be compulsory.

However, when making any decision there are things worth considering:

  • Being vaccinated means you're much less likely to become ill with coronavirus.
  • Most of the population will have to be vaccinated for this pandemic to come to an end.
  • Any vaccine offered to you'll be licensed and approved and will have gone through all the necessary stages of development to make it safe and effective.
  • Your healthcare professional is there to answer any questions or worries you might have about the vaccine.

It’s recommended that only in certain circumstances should pregnant women receive the vaccine and children should not get the coronavirus vaccine at the moment, simply because it has not yet been tested on these groups.

If you have concerns based on specific medications or medical conditions then here are some links which may answer your questions:

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Does a vaccine mean other restrictions will be lifted?

While measures such as social distancing, wearing masks and other restrictions will need to continue for a while after people start receiving a vaccine, once the more vulnerable members of the population are vaccinated we'll likely be able to start returning to normal life.

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I've had coronavirus. Do I still need to get a vaccine?

While your body may have built up some natural immunity to coronavirus if you’ve already had it, we don’t know for certain how long this immunity lasts or how well it protects you from catching it again.

This natural immunity from having an illness doesn’t usually last as long as the immunity of a vaccine, so it’s recommended that if you’ve had coronavirus you do still get a vaccine when it becomes available to you.

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Where can I get reliable information about the vaccine?

At Age UK, we get all of our information from reputable sources including the NHS, academic experts, scientific publications, pharmaceutical companies, The World Health Organisation and the organisation that approve the vaccines, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

But there is lots of misinformation out there. So how do you know what you can believe?

Do I know where this information has come from?

If the person you’re talking to, the social media post you’re reading, or the YouTube video you’re watching doesn’t say where they’ve found the information they’re sharing, it’s worth being sceptical.

We also know there is some false information around which has been deliberately created to worry or upset people. If you see something unnerving, run through the rest of this checklist to see if it is likely to be true.

Is it from a trusted source?

Is the information from a trusted news source that you are familiar with? There are lots of people claiming to be experts speaking about vaccines, but it may be hard to tell whether they are as knowledgeable as they say they are.

Who else is saying the same thing?

If you’ve found information that looks like it could be legitimate, but you aren’t sure, see if you can find it from other reputable and trusted sources. It is unlikely that only one source has a true story about coronavirus.

Is this new or old information?

This is a quick-changing area and researchers are improving knowledge about the coronavirus and the vaccines all the time. What may have been thought to be true a month ago may have been improved upon, disproven, or understood better by now.

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How will consent for the vaccine be gained for people with reduced capacity to make decisions about their healthcare?

Everyone who receives a coronavirus vaccine will be required to give consent. Some people who will be offered the vaccine may lack mental capacity to make decisions about vaccination – this may apply to your loved one.

If this is the case, the decision-maker – usually someone’s GP or the person giving the vaccine – will need to follow the legal requirements set out under the Mental Capacity Act. You may already be familiar with this process.

Due to this, care home providers have been asked to send letters and have conversations with people who have a valid and applicable Lasting Power of Attorney for Health and Welfare on behalf of a resident or to relatives who need to be involved in making a best interest decision on behalf of an individual in advance. You may start to receive these in the coming weeks as care homes and the NHS prepare for rolling out the coronavirus vaccine to people living in care homes. More information on consent forms and letters can be found on the Government’s website.

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How are vaccines getting to care home residents and care staff?

Since December vaccines have been provided directly to care homes, and local vaccinating teams are working closely with care home managers to support the consent process and gain an understanding of the practicalities.

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What about reports from other countries on the side effects and usage of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Vaccine?

There have been reports of other countries pausing their rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Vaccine to certain groups. The MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) in the UK, the European equivalent the EMA, and the World Health Organisation (WHO), are all confident of the safety and effectiveness of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and agree that the benefits outweigh any risks.

Millions of people have received the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. A small number of people have developed health conditions after vaccination. There is substantial evidence of the benefits of the vaccine in preventing illness from coronavirus. The MHRA, EMA and WHO continue to closely monitor all the coronavirus vaccines.

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Last updated: May 17 2021

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