COVID vaccine rollout 'could spark increase in infection rates' as more people flout rules

Emily Cleary
·4 min read
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 07: Bridget Connolly receives the first of her two jabs of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from a member of the Newham Health Trust team at the Sir Ludwig Guttmann Building on January 07, 2021 in London, England. The UK aims to vaccinate all over-70s, front-line health workers, and the most clinically vulnerable by mid February, when its current lockdown rules will be reviewed. That would require around 13 million covid-19 vaccinations. As of Tuesday, the country had vaccinated more than 1.3 million people. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
A coronavirus vaccine rollout could actually spark a rise in infections as people begin to relax social distancing, a government advisory body has warned ministers (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Britain’s coronavirus vaccine rollout is likely to result in more people breaking social distancing rules, scientists advising the government have warned.

Experts on the Independent Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) have said the government must take action to mitigate the risk of a breakdown in adherence to lockdown restrictions.

They warned that, depending on the effectiveness of the vaccine, reduced adherence could more than offset the benefits of vaccination by increasing infection rates - particularly in the early months.

In a paper previously presented to ministers and published on Friday on the website, the group said that “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”.

The concern has grounding in research on prior vaccination programmes, it said. And adherence to social distancing rules might decline if people feel less of a need for protection, or the rules and guidance seem less relevant to them as attention focuses more on the vaccine.

People queue outside a vaccination centre for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), outside IMEX House in Hemel Hempstead, Britain, January 8, 2021. REUTERS/Paul Childs
Vaccination centres administering coronavirus immunisations are opening across Britain (REUTERS/Paul Childs)
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SPI-B said that, depending on the actual effectiveness of the vaccine, reduced compliance with the rules could actually offset the benefits of vaccination by increasing infection rates, particularly in the early months before there is a high degree of coverage.

A survey carried out in early December 2020 found that 50% of Britons said that after receiving the vaccine they would still follow whatever coronavirus rules or restrictions were in place as strictly as they were before getting a vaccine (men 45% and women 53%). However, 29% said that they would adhere less strictly than before, with 18-24 year-olds most likely to say this.

And 11% said that they would ‘probably no longer follow the rules’.

Watch: UK approves Moderna COVID vaccine

Another national poll undertaken the day after UK vaccine roll-out began in December found that most respondents (66%) believed that people should still be subject to restrictions (stay at home, wearing masks) after they had received the COVID-19 vaccine.

However, 22% said they believed that those who had been vaccinated ‘should not be subject to any more coronavirus restrictions’, a view more likely to be held by younger than older people.

Margaret Keenan, 90, is the first patient in Britain to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at University Hospital, administered by nurse May Parsons, at the start of the largest ever immunisation programme in the British history, in Coventry, Britain December 8, 2020. Britain is the first country in the world to start vaccinating people with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Jacob King/Pool via REUTERS     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Margaret Keenan, 90, was the first patient in Britain to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine on 8 December (Jacob King/Pool via Reuters)

Boris Johnson has said that he wants everyone in the "top four priority groups" - around 13 million people - to have been offered a first dose of one of the vaccines by the middle of February.

In order to avoid a resurgance in the virus as the vaccinations roll out takes place, SPI-B put forward recommendations including communicating the ongoing risk of infection and the need to protect others.

It said: “Accurately communicating the continuing level of risk could be an important aspect of mitigation.

“People adhere to COVID-19 protective behaviours in the interests of others (as well as themselves), and in the past have been willing to get vaccinated for others. One might therefore expect that they will be willing to continue to adhere to rules and guidance once a vaccine is available if they are made aware that this is still necessary to protect others.”

The report suggested that social pressures, including both family and community pressures, have a major impact on whether people adopt or reject a vaccine.

It added: “It is important to communicate that continuing with protective behaviours irrespective of vaccination is important for improving population health now and in the future. Communication strategies should take into account the cultural and behavioural aspects of minoritised groups.

“Local communities, leaders, networks and faith groups should be involved in implementing vaccination programmes and explaining uncertainties.”

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