08/01/2021 13:30 GMT

Vaccine Benefits Could Be Lost As People Stop Following Covid Rules, Sage Warns

"Reduced adherence (to restrictions) could more than offset the benefits of vaccination by increasing infection rates," scientists warn.

The benefits of the coronavirus vaccination programme could be lost as people abandon rules designed to stop the spread of the disease, official scientific advice has warned.

This could include people who have received their jab no longer washing their hands regularly, wearing masks, maintaining social distance, ventilating rooms or quarantining.

There is also a risk of a wider reduction in the number of people following the rules as attention focuses on the vaccine and people feel there is less need for protection, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned.

Unless the government takes action to stress the importance of continuing to follow Covid rules as the vaccine is rolled out, infection rates could rise, resulting in a “very large cost to health, wellbeing and the economy”.

The concerns are likely based on the fact that while vaccines can stop those who have been jabbed from getting ill, it is not yet known if they stop that person passing on the virus.

“Modelling suggests that, depending on real-world effectiveness of the vaccine, reduced adherence 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,” Sage’s Independent Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) said in a paper published on Friday.

“Given the very large cost to health, wellbeing and the economy of a reduction in adherence, we recommend preparing for, and taking action to mitigate any decline in adherence related to vaccine roll-out.” 

Russell Cheyne / Reuters
A healthcare worker fills a syringe with a dose of Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine at the Pentland Medical Practice, in Currie, Scotland

SPI-B said there was evidence that people were less likely to continue with behaviour to reduce the spread of disease once vaccines are rolled out, citing an evaluation of Lyme disease inoculations in the US.

The paper also referenced polling from December which suggested 29% of people would follow the rules less strictly once they had been given a jab.

Another poll found that 22% of people believed those who have been vaccinated “should not be subject to any more coronavirus restrictions”.

The paper went on: “Although there is no direct evidence, it is reasonable to expect that if employers, businesses, politicians or others start encouraging people to resume normal activities because of a growing rate of people who have been vaccinated (e.g. 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.”

SPI-B urged the government to develop a “culturally tailored” communications strategy to ensure people understand why it is important to continue following rules, whether they have been vaccinated or not.

Vaccination appointments could provide one opportunity to do this, the paper said.

Ministers were urged to “ensure that people realise that vaccination, however effective, leaves some risk, and ensure that communications promoting vaccination do not unintentionally undermine communications promoting adherence to protective behaviours.”