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Getting the COVID-19 vaccine: what to expect

We answer common questions and concerns about the vaccination process

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine: what to expect

As the vaccine rollout continues across the UK, the reality of getting a jab draws closer for more people. 

Vaccines have now been given to millions across the UK, providing some level of hope for respite from the pandemic. But you might still be wondering how it will all work in practice and what will happen when you’re invited for a jab.

Here, we break down the process. From how you’ll be contacted (including avoiding scams), to the process of getting the jab, common concerns about the vaccination and the next steps – we’ve got your key questions covered:


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How will I be contacted to get a vaccine?

The NHS will contact you when it’s your turn to get a vaccine.

This could be in a variety of ways, such as letter, text or email, depending on your local area.

England

You’ll be contacted via letter, text or email.

  • If you’re invited to have your vaccination at a larger vaccination centre or at a pharmacy, you’ll get a letter
  • If you’re invited to have your vaccination at hospital or at a GP surgery, you’ll usually get a text or email, but you may sometimes get a letter.

It’s possible you’ll get both, depending on how joined up the services are.

Wales

Letters have been sent out to households with information about how the vaccine rollout will work.

Vaccine appointment invitations will be sent via letter, phone call, email or text from the health board.

Scotland

Individual local health boards are arranging appointments for people and you’ll be contacted via letter.

Northern Ireland

GPs, hospitals and some employers are contacting people eligible for the jab via letter or email.

There is also a telephone number you can call and an online portal where you can book an appointment if you are eligible – you may still be eligible to book online without having been contacted, find out more here.

Warning: watch out for vaccine scams

There have been a few fraudulent vaccine invitations circling around, which are used by scammers to get your personal details or money.

These can look highly convincing (as per the example of a fake vaccine booking website above), so it’s worth being vigilant.

How to check if your vaccine invitation is real

It can be confusing, as there is no one way the NHS will contact you. So when you receive an invitation for a vaccine, scrutinise it carefully. Check for spelling errors and invitations coming from non-NHS addresses.

You might get an email or text sending you to a booking website that looks convincing (like the image example above).

The key thing to remember is that the NHS will never ask for payment to book a vaccine, and will not ask for personal details such as your passport number or bank details.

For more on how you’ll be contacted, see our vaccination discussion piece.


COVID-19 vaccine scams – more on what they are and how to spot one


Which vaccine will I get?

The UK is currently administering the Pfizer, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines.

There are multiple other vaccines still going through trials and regulatory approval that will be used in the UK if they’re approved, including:

  • Novavax vaccine Seeking approval from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)
  • Johnson & Johnson vaccine In phase three trials – the final stage of testing before roll out
  • Valneva vaccine Also in phase three trials.

You may not know in advance which vaccine you’re getting, but all vaccines being offered are shown to work well at preventing you from getting sick from coronavirus.

The vaccine you get will have been approved by the MHRA and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) for your age and risk group.

The only demographic-based recommendation at this stage is that under 40s should be offered an alternative to the AstraZeneca vaccine if there’s one available.

Blood clots

There have been extremely rare reports of specific types of blood clots occurring following a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

While the evidence of a link between these clots and the vaccine is getting clearer, more research is needed for absolute proof.

In any case, these events are extremely rare: the MHRA says that of around 20 million people given the AstraZeneca vaccine so far in the UK, there have been 79 cases of rare blood clots.

In light of this information, the MHRA has advised:

  • People who are at higher risk of blood clots because of their medical condition should only be considered for the AstraZeneca vaccine if the benefits outweigh potential risks
    Anyone who experienced a blood clot following their first dose of the vaccine should not have a second dose; those who did not experience these side effects (the vast majority of people) should still have their second dose
    As before, pregnant women should discuss with their doctor whether the benefit of having the vaccine outweigh the risks

It is important to remember that Covid-19 itself can cause serious blood clotting, and the risk associated with this is much higher.

From now on, if you are under 40, you will probably be offered an alternative to the AstraZeneca vaccine. This is based on the balance of risk of extremely rare side effects, and is out of an abundance of caution.

If you’re under 40 and have already had the AZ jab, you are still encouraged to get your second. Most clots happened after the first dose, and it’s still overwhelmingly safe to get vaccinated – these rule changes demonstrate how much scrutiny is on the vaccines and how careful health authorities are being.

Are the current vaccines effective against new variants of COVID-19?

Viruses often mutate, so new strains of COVID-19 are to be expected. This is why the flu vaccine is tweaked annually.

But there’s been some concern that new variants with significant mutations, such as the South African and Brazilian strains, may throw a spanner in the works of the vaccine rollout.

A small-scale study has suggested that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine might be as little as 22% effective against the South African strain, and a similar reduction in effectiveness is expected for the Pfizer vaccine.

However, this isn’t as bad as it sounds: firstly, neither the the South African nor Brazilian variants are widespread in the UK, and both the Oxford and Pfizer vaccines are very effective against the dominant strains here – including the Kent strain. So they will still have a considerable protective effect.

Secondly, while the results of the study show that the Oxford vaccine may be less effective at preventing mild to moderate Covid symptoms in those infected with the South African variant, it should still protect against severe disease and hospitalisation, according to one of the Oxford vaccine’s lead developers.

So if you’re due to get the vaccine, or have already had your first jab, it’s still going to help protect you against the more prevalent strains of COVID-19 present in the UK, and should still help to prevent severe illness caused by other variants.

Furthermore, vaccine formulations can be tweaked relatively quickly to adapt to the changing virus. There are already plans to modify the Oxford and Pfizer jabs, which could then be given as a booster.

Where will I get my vaccine?

Across the UK, vaccines are being given in mass vaccination centres (which can include a variety of public buildings that have been repurposed, such as entertainment and sports venues – and even cathedrals) as well as GP surgeries, hospitals and some pharmacies.

You’ll be told where yours is when you receive an invitation.

What will happen at my vaccine appointment?

The NHS says appointments should take about 30 to 45 minutes. You should expect some questions about your medical history, whether it’s possible you are pregnant and whether you’ve had any allergic reactions in the past.

  • You’ll need to bring your face covering or mask, and a booking reference number if your appointment is at a vaccination centre.
  • Remember to wear your mask whenever you’re inside, and as well if you’re outside and in close proximity to other people.

You may be asked to wait 15 minutes after being given the injection, to monitor for any adverse reactions (these are highly unlikely and this is standard practice with vaccinations). If a reaction does occur, you can be treated immediately.

Vaccination locations have strict infection prevention measures in place, including regular cleaning and social distancing in waiting areas.

There have been some reports of people having to queue for vaccinations. This shouldn’t happen and is reportedly being managed with staggered appointment times. For this reason, it’s important to turn up on time and not late or too early for your appointment.

If you’re housebound or in a care home, you’ll be vaccinated there.

You should not attend a vaccine appointment if you are self-isolating, waiting for a COVID-19 test or unsure if you’re fit and well. In this case, your appointment will be rescheduled.


Find out what the vaccine means for care home residents and their families


What happens after my vaccine?

You’ll be given some information leaflets to take home with advice on what to expect.

Like with any vaccine, you may experience some mild side effects afterwards. These are normal and should disappear within a couple of days, and are broadly similar for both available vaccines.

The most common ones include:

  • Having a painful, heavy feeling and tenderness in the arm where you had your injection. This tends to be worst around one to two days after the vaccine
  • Feeling tired
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Fever

A less common one is swelling of the glands, which can also be managed at home in most cases.

The government warns that ‘although feeling feverish is not uncommon for two to three days, a high temperature is unusual and may indicate you have COVID-19 or another infection,’ (unrelated to having the vaccine). So if your symptoms are getting worse or don’t go away, order a coronavirus test or call NHS 111.

The vaccines are constantly being monitored, with people reporting any side effects like the ones above. The reports so far are similar to what you’d see in other widely used vaccines like the flu vaccine.

As a precautionary measure, anyone who has the following symptoms four or more days after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine should seek prompt medical advice:

  • a new onset of severe or persistent headache, blurred vision, confusion or seizures
    develop shortness of breath, chest pain, leg swelling or persistent abdominal pain,
    unusual skin bruising or pinpoint round spots beyond the injection site

Getting a second dose

The current COVID-19 vaccines available in the UK require two doses. One dose is thought to provide a good level of protection, but you need a second dose for the best protection.

Your second dose will be given three to 12 weeks after the first, and you’ll be given an appointment date for this as well.

Again, you shouldn’t attend a vaccine appointment if you’re self-isolating or waiting for a COVID-19 test.

If you’re unwell for your second appointment, the advice is that it’s better to wait until you’ve recovered to have your vaccine, but you should try to have it as soon as possible.

Can you still spread COVID-19 after being vaccinated?

This is a big question and one that is still being investigated. It’s likely that the risk of transmission is much lower once you’ve been vaccinated, but for now we’re working under the assumption that vaccinated people may still be able to catch and spread the virus without any symptoms.

It’s important not to get lax with precautions – masks, hand hygiene and social distancing – after you’ve had your jab or jabs. Not least because it takes time to build immunity after having the vaccination and it’s not 100% foolproof.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has shown some promise on this front, though – an as-yet unpublished study reported that it could reduce transmission of the disease by up 67%.

Do you need a vaccine if you’ve already had COVID-19?

Yes. You may have some level of immunity if you’ve had the disease, but it’s not known how strong this is or how long it lasts. We now know that it’s possible to get COVID-19 for a second time, so it’s still vital to get vaccinated.

Can anyone not have the COVID-19 vaccine?

People with allergies to any of the vaccine ingredients should not be given the vaccine that contains those ingredients. Speak to your doctor about this when it’s your turn to be vaccinated.

There aren’t currently plans for children under the age 18 to get the vaccination. This is because the vaccines haven’t been tested on children and also because the risk of complications for children from the disease is very low.

Pregnant women are advised against getting the vaccine unless they’re at high risk of complications from coronavirus, in which case the benefit outweighs the risk.


Pregnancy and the COVID-19 vaccine – what you need to know


Are there any animal products in COVID-19 vaccines?

No – none of the vaccines contain any animal products.

Imams across the UK have confirmed that all of the vaccines are halal and the British Islamic Medical Association and Muslim Council of Britain recommends that Muslims have the vaccine.

Jewish doctors in the UK have confirmed that the vaccines are kosher.

The vaccine has also been endorsed by the Hindu Council UK.

How can such a quickly produced vaccine be safe?

This is perhaps the most common concern from people about the COVID-19 vaccines. You may have heard that it can normally take up to 10 years to produce a vaccine, so how can this one be OK if it’s been done in less than a year?

First, those 10 years it takes aren’t all spent on safety monitoring. The delay is usually more down to logistics and funding issues. The COVID-19 vaccines haven’t had those issues. Some key ways in which the COVID-19 vaccines have been developed more quickly and just as safely are:

  • There were already preparations in place Vaccination development for coronaviruses has been going on long before the pandemic, so scientists already have a basis of years of work from which to develop the vaccine for COVID-19.
  • Overlapping trial stages The usual phases for vaccine development have been carried out in tandem to speed up the process. None of these vital safety stages have been skipped or done in half-measures.
  • Funding Due to the urgent global need for a vaccine to end the pandemic, there has been a lot of money available for COVID-19 vaccine development and funding for multiple vaccines at a time, which wouldn’t be the case in a non-emergency situation.
  • Manufacturing capability Manufacturing on vaccines has been allowed to happen before approval, so that when they are approved, they’re ready to go instantly.

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This story was originally published on 5 February 2021, but has since been updated to reflect emerging information on COVID-19 variants and vaccine efficacy


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