What to expect after Covid vaccinations are available

social distancing concept in green

It’s the milestone we’ve all been waiting for since the beginning of the pandemic; Covid-19 vaccines are now being distributed up and down the country to all those most vulnerable to the virus.

So what can we expect after Covid vaccinations are available to everyone? 

For months now, politicians, medical experts and scientists have been saying that the vaccine is our way out of localised lockdowns, tier systems and restrictions in the future. Now, with 2020 drawing to a close and a January lockdown certainly on the horizon for many parts of the UK, we have to turn our attention to 2021 for more positive news about the fight against coronavirus.

Pfizer's Covid vaccine has already been given to almost 140,000 people in the UK and the Oxford vaccine is well on the way to being next in the fight against coronavirus. Next year, it's thought that even more vulnerable age groups and parts of society will receive the vaccine, with more than half the population going onto receive the vaccine later in the year and into 2022 according to the latest information issued by the National Audit Office (NAO). 

The question now remains as to what happens next and what can we expect after Covid vaccinations? In 2021, who will be the first to receive the vaccine? When everyone is vaccinated, will we be able to go out to entertainment venues and restaurants without a substantial meal? Will we have to wear masks? And can we expect the vaccine to be a yearly event in the calendar from now on? Here's what the experts have to say about what to expect from next year onwards.

What to expect after Covid vaccinations are available

Medical experts have warned that life probably won't return to normal as soon as we might hope after the Covid vaccinations are available. So, even though major advancements have been made with the vaccine this year, all the excitement over potentially being able to see friends and family again without that two metre distance might be a little premature.

Researchers from the Royal Society have said that the UK needs to be “realistic” about what the vaccine would be able to achieve and in what time span. They have said that the restrictions, which now see over 38 million people unable to socialise indoors or visit hospitality venues, may need to be “gradually relaxed” as it might take up to a year for the vaccine to be offered to everyone.

A dose of the Pfizer/BioNtech covid-19 vaccine

A dose of the Pfizer/BioNtech covid-19 vaccine, as hundreds of Covid-19 vaccination centres run by local doctors begin opening across England, on December 14, 2020. (Photo by Aaron Chown - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Dr Fiona Culley, from the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London and a key lead on the report says,  “Vaccines are held up as our best chance of getting our lives back to some sense of normality, but we have to be realistic. 

"The path to successful vaccines is filled with potential problems in finding vaccines that will work effectively in the ways we need and in being able to roll them out.  Planning now for the different scenarios that might play out will give us the best chance of taking rapid advantage of any vaccines that are proven to be safe and effective.”

So while the government has suggested that hundreds of thousands of people may get the vaccine by the end of 2020, with mass vaccinations occurring in early 2021, the Royal Society has urged caution and warns not to expect major changes after Covid vaccinations. 

“Even when the vaccine is available it doesn't mean within a month everybody is going to be vaccinated, we're talking about six months, nine months... a year," Professor Nilay Shah, head of chemical engineering at Imperial College London, said.

"There's not a question of life suddenly returning to normal in March."

Two women with bicycle and face mask walking in park

Credit: Getty

So with our expectations over when the vaccine might be rolled out put in perspective, how many people have to have the vaccine for some semblance of normal life to return to normal?

Healthwork director, Dr Jon Hobson told GoodtoKnow: “Life is only likely to return to normal once the vaccination has proven its effectiveness at preventing infection and COVID disease and that immunity lasts for more than a few months.

“It is also likely to require sufficient people to have had the vaccine to develop herd immunity.”

He explains, “This is likely to be 60-70% of the population who have been vaccinated and then develop immunity. That will still not prevent some people from becoming infected so even with an effective vaccine and an efficient and rapid vaccination programme it could be 6-12 months before infection rates become negligible. 

“Whether proof of vaccination or immunity could be required to return to some activities such as group gatherings or live entertainment in the interim remains to be seen.”

The Queen's Diamond Jubilee

This comes as Ticketmaster had to confirm their position on the matter, disputing claims that anyone attending a concert or event in the future would need to have proof of their vaccination status. Ticketmaster have said that no such plans were in the works, even though they had considered the idea.

In a statement on their website, the company have said, "There is absolutely no requirement from Ticketmaster mandating vaccines/testing for future events. Unfortunately, this has been widely reported and is incorrect. Ticketmaster does not have the power to set policies around safety/entry requirements, which would include vaccines and/or testing protocols. That would always be up to the discretion of the event organizer, based on their preferences and local health guidelines."

With the future in mind, this is what else our experts want you to know about what to expect after Covid vaccinations.

Who will be prioritised for the vaccine first?

Older woman woman sitting at kitchen table using laptop

Credit: Getty

In 2021, the government and NHS will continue their coronavirus vaccination programme. Residents in care homes, along with their carers and critically vulnerable and elderly people are being vaccinated currently as the first priority, followed by these groups:

  1. All those aged 80 and over, along with frontline health and social care workers.
  2. All those aged 75 and over.
  3. All those aged 70 and over, along with clinically vulnerable individuals.
  4. All those aged 65 and over.
  5. Everyone aged between 16 to 64 years old with underlying health conditions which put them at a higher risk of serious illness.
  6. All those aged 60 and over.
  7. All those aged 55 and over.
  8. All those aged 50 and over.

This is in priority order and it's thought that the NHS will continue to contact all those who are eligible for a vaccine at the time.

Speaking to the House of Commons on December 2 2020, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, "We will deliver according to clinical prioritisation and operational necessity because the need to hold the vaccine at minus-70 makes this vaccine particularly challenging to deploy.

"While we will begin vaccination next week, the bulk of the vaccinations will be in the new year. But I would urge anyone called forward for vaccination by the NHS to respond quickly, to protect themselves, their loved ones and their community."

Who will administer the Covid vaccine?

NHS nurse prepares coronavirus vaccination, something to expect after Covid vaccinations become widely available

Credit: Getty

Confirming that the vaccine was ready to be rolled out, Heath Secretary Matt Hancock said that the "NHS is equal to the task".

"This will be one of the biggest civilian logistical efforts that we have faced as a nation." The health secretary said, "It will be difficult. There will be challenges and complications. But I know the NHS is equal to the task.

"And I am delighted to confirm that the NHS will be able to start vaccinating from early next week."

There hasn't been any confirmation from other sources suggesting that any other organisation or private company will be involved with the administration of the coronavirus vaccine in future, nor any indication that it will eventually cost individuals money.

In his address to the House of Commons on December 2, Matt Hancock confirmed this as he relayed free healthcare as one of the focal achievements of the NHS.

"Rolling out a vaccine free at the point of delivery, according to clinical need, not ability to pay, is in the finest tradition of our National Health Service." He said.

Much like the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, if the vaccine needs to be administered in the years to come then we can expect it will be available to everyone who needs it on the NHS, after Covid vaccinations are widely available.

Will the vaccine be mandatory?

No, the vaccine will not be mandatory for anyone who doesn't want to have it. In the UK, there are no vaccines that are required by law including commonly administered ones such as the MMR vaccine and the cervical cancer vaccine, which is given to children in year 9 at school at parental discretion.

This is the case due to the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984 which rules out any compulsory medical treatment - including vaccines.

However, with so much riding on the vaccine to take the UK (and the rest of the world) out of the pandemic, there have been suggestions by politicians and health professionals alike that life will be made harder for those who choose not to have the vaccine.

Back in July, Matt Hancock said that he was seriously considering compulsory vaccinations in some cases. “There is a very strong argument for having compulsory vaccinations for children for when they go to school – because otherwise they are putting other children at risk,” he said.

“Actually, I’ve received advice inside government this week on how we might go about it. And I’m looking very seriously at it.”

While Dr Harriet Leyland, clinical advisor at myGP tells GoodtoKnow, “I don’t believe the vaccine will be mandatory, but it will be encouraged."

She explains, "We don’t have a history of making vaccines mandatory in the UK, although there has been discussion recently as to whether vaccination against childhood diseases should be a requirement for accessing school places, in light of recent measles outbreaks.

"When thinking about vaccination we need to take into account not just the benefit to ourselves as individuals, but also the benefit to society as a whole. The more people that take up the offer of the vaccine the quicker the protection of everyone will build up and the lower the risk of ongoing outbreaks and the restrictions that follow.”

Will we have to wear masks even after the vaccine is available?

man wearing a face mask on a tube, something that we expect will still happen after Covid vaccinations

Credit: Getty

“Social distancing and other measures are likely to remain in place for some time and until at least infection rates become very low.” Dr Jon Hobson says.

 “Whilst the vaccine might stop someone from getting the disease, it won’t necessarily stop them from spreading the virus if it collects in the upper respiratory tract. There is also likely to be time to develop immunity after the vaccine which could be 21 days.

 “We also need to understand how long the vaccine remains effective for. It is difficult to envisage a system whereby people don’t have to wear a mask if they have been vaccinated.”

But on the plus side, we’ve been wearing masks for almost nine months now and as Dr Harriet Leyland suggests, it’s becoming part of normal life. 

“It is likely we are going to need to continue to wear masks for some time.” She explains, due to a lack of knowledge around how effective the vaccine will be at protecting those who haven’t been vaccinated or are otherwise at risk.

“We may also find that people’s behaviour changes on a more long term basis and masks become a much more normal part of everyday life, as is seen in many Asian countries, where people might routinely wear a mask on public transport or if they have a cold, for example.”

Will the entertainment industry be able to open again after widespread vaccinations?

Empty theatre land in London

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The current three tier system in England has prevented many Indoor entertainment and hospitality venues from opening their doors again.

Unfortunately, it looks as though entertainment venues will be some of the last to shed their restrictions. Setting expectations about what to expect after Covid vaccinations, Dr Jon Hobson from Healthwork says, "There are likely to be some restrictions on this type of activity until infection rates are very low. But see above. Rapid testing may also provide a way in which these events can restart.”

Gareth Palmer, owner of luxury catering specialists, Vanilla Bean, concurs. "I definitely feel that it's private events that will bounce back first, with all the postponed family celebrations and weddings, but corporate events will closely follow." 

"The events industry is full of passionate, driven professionals who are used to building events from a blank canvas in a matter of days so their rebuild/recovery of businesses will also happen quickly." 

He tells GoodtoKnow: "Three things will happen in order to get on the road to recovery. Firstly, customer social confidence needs to come back and they need to feel safe attending events (probably with measures in place). Then, the government will need to start supporting the events industry to further encourage people to attend events."

There is some hope for the UK's struggling theatre lands and entertainment venues though.

Dr Harriet Leyland says that it's better to expect a gradual release of the social distancing rules after Covid vaccinations become available. But she assures us, this could happen from late spring onwards depending on the UK's vaccination efforts.

She says, "I think the relaxation will need to be slow to ensure that we don’t go backwards and end up with further outbreaks. There may be situations where access to social events is controlled by an “immunity passport” which is provided to people who have received the vaccination, probably in the form of an electronically generated QR code.

"I think travel will certainly continue to be restricted based on whether or not someone can prove they are Covid free or have been vaccinated well into next year and probably even longer.”

While Gareth reckons, "Following the successful vaccination, the events industry will gradually come back to life. Our clients are certainly waiting on tenterhooks for the day they can book an event with us, and we're looking forward to it as well.

"It may take some time to get completely back to 'normal', but the vaccine should start to have a positive effect on the events industry as soon as it becomes widespread.”

Grace Walsh
Features Writer

Grace Walsh is a health and wellbeing writer, working across the subjects of family, relationships, and LGBT topics, as well as sleep and mental health. A digital journalist with over six years  experience as a writer and editor for UK publications, Grace is currently Health Editor for womanandhome.com and has also worked with Cosmopolitan, Red, The i Paper, GoodtoKnow, and more. After graduating from the University of Warwick, she started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness.