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The Saga guide to the Covid-19 vaccine

Rachel Carlyle / 16 December 2020 ( 25 January 2021 )

Updated: With Covid-19 vaccines now rolling out across the country, we look at who is eligible and the logistics of such a massive vaccination programme.

Doctor with vaccine
The Covid-19 vaccine is here, and the UK has started its biggest ever vaccination programme

Millions of people aged 70+ as well as those clinically extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 will receive an invitation to be vaccinated from the week beginning 18th January as part of the UK’s biggest ever vaccination programme.

The programme is gaining momentum, with football stadiums and other sports arenas, conference centres, a racecourse (Epsom Downs) and even a cathedral (Blackburn Cathedral in Lancashire) transformed into mass vaccination hubs. There are now 17 ‘super-hubs’ around England. Plans are also in place to begin piloting 24-hour vaccination centres by the end of January.

The new hubs join some 1,000 GP surgeries and more than 250 hospitals now offering vaccinations as part of the government’s drive to vaccinate all four of the most vulnerable groups - those over the age of 70, care home residents and staff, NHS workers and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals - by 15 February.

Here at Saga, we’ve received lots of questions from readers and customers about when they are likely to get the vaccine. Here’s what we know so far:

Who can get vaccinated now?

Care home residents and staff are still top of the priority list, followed by the over-80s and frontline health and social care workers. This priority list is the same for the whole of the UK, although there are some differences in roll-out between the four countries of the UK. As of 18 January more than four million people have received their first vaccine dose in the UK.

Logistical issues meant that roll out of the Pfizer Biontech jab, the first to be ap-proved, which has to be stored at -70°C was quite complicated. The vaccine is packed in boxes of 975 vials containing up to almost 5,000 doses, is fragile and can only be moved four times in that ‘cold chain’; once opened, a batch has to be used within three and a half days.

The approval on 30th December 2020 of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which can be kept at normal fridge temperature and so is far easier to distribute and store, has meant that more people have been given the chance to be vaccinated sooner.

I’m over 80. Should I ring my local hospital or GP?

Around half of people aged 80 and over have already received their jabs, and more than one million have now been offered vaccination at an NHS vaccination cen-tre in England.

If you haven’t had your jab yet, the Government is requesting patience. There are considerable regional variations, with some areas having vaccinated up to 90 per cent of the over 80s and others more like 30 per cent. There’s no need to call your hospital or GP; the NHS will contact you when they have a vaccine for you.

What about people in care homes?

As of 13 January 25 per cent of care home residents had been vaccinated and NHS England has said that all care home residents should receive their first jab by 24th January at the latest.

I’m in my 70s. When will I be called?

The government has announced that invitations can begin to be sent out to the over 70s and those classed as clinically extremely vulnerable (that is those people who were asked to shield earlier in the pandemic) during the week beginning 18 Jan-uary.

The exact timing of your vaccination, however, will depend on where you live and whether most care home residents, frontline health and care staff and people over 80 in your area have now been vaccinated. These groups remain the top priority.

I’m in my 60s. When is it my turn?

The over-65s will be called up after the 70-74s and the shielders. However, next on the list after the over-65s are people aged 16-64 with serious underlying health conditions. These include the morbidly obese, people with chronic respiratory diseas-es, heart disease, kidney disease, epilepsy, diabetes, some cancers, immunosup-pression and severe mental illness. Once those groups are vaccinated will it be the turn of the 60-64s. After that, it’s 55-59s, followed by 50-54s and then the rest of the population.

Is there any way I can get my vaccine early?

No. People have been asked to be patient as doctors and nurses work methodi-cally through the priority list. There’s no way of jumping the queue, as it will all be done by age bands after those in the first priority groups are inoculated. However, things are speeding up and with other vaccines also in the pipeline it’s hoped the pro-gramme can be rolled out even faster.

The UK Government ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and has bought 100 million doses of the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine, with 40 million due to be rolled out by March this year. The two combined would be enough to cover the whole population, according to Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the body responsible for regulating medicines, has approved the Moderna vaccine; the UK has ordered 17 million doses although we’re not expecting them until the spring. For ship-ping and long-term storage this one can be maintained at -20°C/-4°F, for up to 6 months, equal to the temperature of most home or medical freezers. After thawing Moderna expect the vaccine will stay stable at standard fridge temperature ( 2-8°C/36-46°F)) for up to 30 days.

Am I immune after my first jab?

You are immune two weeks after having the Pfizer/BioNTech jab and after three weeks after having the Oxford/AstraZeneca one – but, whichever vaccine you have, you’ll need two doses for maximum benefit (see below). The second dose of the Pfiz-er/BioNTech vaccine may be offered between three and 12 weeks following the first dose. The second dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, meanwhile, can be given between four and 12 weeks following the first dose.

The UK’s four Chief Medical Officers (for England, Wales, Scotland and Norther Ireland) recommend that as many people as possible on the priority list should be given a first dose so as to protect the largest number of vulnerable people in the shortest possible time. This means that whichever vaccine you have, you are likely to be given your second dose towards the end of the recommended interval of 12 weeks so as to maximise the numbers vaccinated.

Are the two vaccines equally effective?

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is up to 95% effective, while the Ox-ford/AstraZeneca vaccine is 70% effective. Although this may seem quite a difference both are highly effective – for comparison the flu vaccine averages at around 40%. Both vaccines are effective in older people.

What about the other vaccines?

The UK Government has backed seven vaccines in total and ordered 357 million doses – one of the biggest number per head in the world. Three of those are currently approved with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine being expected to be the ‘workhorse’ of the vaccination programme.

The Government has also ordered: 60 million doses of Valneva, 60 million of No-vavax, 60 million of GlaxoSmithKline/Sanofi Pasteur, 30 million of Janssen and 17 million of Moderna (up from the original five, then seven, million ordered). Moderna became the third vaccine to be approved in the UK on January 8, although supplies won’t be delivered in the spring.

Once the MHRA starts to approve other vaccines, the rollout will speed up even more. For now it’s still impossible to say how quickly this will happen.

When will the whole priority group be vaccinated?

It is still impossible to say but the government has reiterated its aim of getting all the first four priority groups vaccinated by 15th February. At the time of writing the NHS was delivering the vaccine at a rate of 140 jabs a minute.

How soon will I be protected?

Protection starts two weeks after the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and three weeks after the Oxford/AstraZeneca one. You will need the second ‘booster’ to help ensure longer-lasting immunity.

Can I choose which vaccine I have?

No. At the moment the priority is to get as many people in at risk groups vaccinated as soon as possible.

Can I mix and match the vaccines?

According to Public Health England (PHE) you should preferably receive the same type of vaccine for your first and second doses. However, if the same vaccine is not available or if there is no record of which vaccine you received first you could be offered a different brand. Speaking to the British Medical Journal at the beginning of January, Mary Ramsay, head of immunisations at PHE, said that while every effort should be made to give [patients] the same vaccine…where this is not possible it is better to give a second dose of another vaccine than not at all.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.