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COVID vaccine benefits may be outweighed by people ignoring restrictions, scientists warn

Written by on 8 January 2021

The benefits of the UK’s coronavirus vaccine rollout may be outweighed by a rise in infections from people believing they no longer need to follow COVID rules, the government’s scientific advisers have warned.

A survey found more than a quarter of people (29%) planned to adhere less strictly to coronavirus restrictions once they have received a vaccine, according to the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B).

The group urged the government to take action to “mitigate any decline in adherence related to vaccine rollout” given the “very large cost to health, wellbeing and the economy” from an increase in people ignoring the rules.

In a paper published on Friday, SPI-B warned that modelling suggested that “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”.

“While concerns over the vaccination programme have mainly focused on the logistics and funding of vaccine delivery, it is important that consideration be given to potential unintended consequences,” SPI-B said.

“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.”

It added: “Adherence might decline if people feel less of a need for protection, or the rules and guidance seem less salient to them as attention focuses more on the vaccine.”

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SPI-B, which advises the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said businesses and politicians “may further undermine efforts to promote adherence” if they start encouraging people to resume normal activities because of a rise in the rate of people being vaccinated.

“(For example), 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,” the group added.

A national survey in early December found that 50% of people said they would still follow whatever coronavirus rules or restrictions were in place after receiving a vaccine, the document said.

However, 29% said they would adhere less strictly than before, with people aged 18 to 24 most likely to say this, it added.

“Worryingly, 11% said that they would ‘probably no longer follow the rules’,” SPI-B said.