Updated: Jun 6, 2021
GOV.uk Independent report, December 2020
This advice is provided to facilitate the development of policy on COVID-19 vaccination in the UK.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advises that the first priorities for any COVID-19 vaccination programme should be the prevention of COVID-19 mortality and the protection of health and social care staff and systems. Secondary priorities could include vaccination of those at increased risk of hospitalisation and at increased risk of exposure, and to maintain resilience in essential public services. This document sets out a framework for refining future advice on a national COVID-19 vaccination strategy.
This advice has been developed based on:
a review of UK epidemiological data on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic so far (see reference 1)
data on demographic and clinical risk factors for mortality and hospitalisation from COVID-19 (see references 2 to 3)
data on occupational exposure (see references 4 to 7)
a review on vaccine inequalities associated with COVID-19 (see reference 8)
Phase 1, 2 and 3 data on the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine and headline phase III results on the AstraZeneca vaccine, Phase 1 and 2 data on other developmental COVID-19 vaccines (see references 9 to 18)
mathematical modelling on the potential impact of different vaccination programmes (see reference 19)
The committee has reviewed unpublished Phase 1, 2 and 3 safety and efficacy data for the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine. The vaccine appears to be safe and well-tolerated, and there were no clinically concerning safety observations. The data indicates high efficacy in all age groups (16 years and over), including encouraging results in older adults. The committee advises that this vaccine be used in the first phase of the programme, according to the priority order set out below. While there is some evidence to indicate high levels of short-term protection from a single dose of vaccine, a two-dose vaccine schedule is currently advised in accordance with regulatory approval.
This statement will be updated following consideration of Phase 3 safety and efficacy data on other COVID-19 vaccines.
Direct protection versus transmission reduction
JCVI has considered a number of different vaccination strategies, including those targeting transmission and those targeted at providing direct protection to persons most at risk.
In order to interrupt transmission, mathematical modelling indicates that we would need to vaccinate a large proportion of the population with a vaccine which is highly effective at preventing infection (transmission). At the start of the vaccination programme, good evidence on the effects of vaccination on transmission will not be available, and vaccine availability will be more limited. The best use of available vaccine will also, in part, be dependent on the point in the pandemic the UK is at.
Given the current epidemiological situation in the UK, all evidence indicates that the best option for preventing morbidity and mortality in the initial phase of the programme is to directly protect persons most at risk of morbidity and mortality.
Current evidence strongly indicates that the single greatest risk of mortality from COVID-19 is increasing age and that the risk increases exponentially with age (see references 1 to 3). Mathematical modelling indicates that the optimal strategy for minimising future deaths or quality adjusted life year (QALY) losses is to offer vaccination to older age groups first. These models assume an available vaccine is both safe and effective in older adults (see reference 19). Data also indicate that the absolute risk of mortality is higher in those over 65 years than that seen in the majority of younger adults with an underlying health condition (see below). Accordingly, the Committee’s advice largely prioritises based on age.
Age-based programmes are usually easier to implement and therefore achieve higher vaccine uptake. An age-based programme is also likely to increase uptake in those with clinical risk factors as the prevalence of these increases with age.
Older adults resident in care homes
There is clear evidence that those living in residential care homes for older adults have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 (see references 20 to 23) as they have had a high risk of exposure to infection and are at higher clinical risk of severe disease and mortality. Given the increased risk of outbreaks, morbidity and mortality in these closed settings, these adults are considered to be at very high risk. The committee’s advice is that this group should be the highest priority for vaccination. Vaccination of residents and staff at the same time is considered to be a highly efficient strategy within a mass vaccination programme with the greatest potential impact (see below).
Health and social care workers
Frontline health and social care workers are at increased personal risk of exposure to infection with COVID-19 and of transmitting that infection to susceptible and vulnerable patients in health and social care settings. The committee considers frontline health and social care workers who provide care to vulnerable people a high priority for vaccination. Protecting them protects the health and social care service and recognises the risks that they face in this service. Even a small reduction in transmission arising from vaccination would add to the benefits of vaccinating this population, by reducing transmission from health and social care workers to multiple vulnerable patients and other staff members. This group includes those working in hospice care and those working temporarily in the COVID-19 vaccination programme who provide face-to-face clinical care.
There is evidence that infection rates are higher in residential care home staff (see references 20 to 23), than in those providing domiciliary care or in healthcare workers. Care home workers are therefore considered a very high priority for vaccination.
Prioritisation amongst health and social care workers
Frontline health and social care workers at high risk of acquiring infection, at high individual risk of developing serious disease, or at risk of transmitting infection to multiple vulnerable persons or other staff in a healthcare environment, are considered of higher priority for vaccination than those at lower risk. This prioritisation should be taken into account during vaccine deployment.
Clinically extremely vulnerable (shielding patients)
Individuals considered extremely clinically vulnerable have been shielding for much of the pandemic (see reference 24) . This means that available data are likely to underestimate the risk in this group. Many of those who are clinically extremely vulnerable are in the oldest age groups and will be among the first to receive vaccine.
Considering data from the first wave in the UK, the overall risk of mortality for clinically extremely vulnerable younger adults is estimated to be roughly the same as the risk to persons aged 70 to 74 years.
Given the level of risk seen in this group as a whole, JCVI advises that persons aged less than 70 years who are clinically extremely vulnerable should be offered vaccine alongside those aged 70 to 74 years of age. There are 2 key exceptions to this, pregnant women with heart disease and children (see below).
Many individuals who are clinically extremely vulnerable will have some degree of immunosuppression or be immunocompromised and may not respond as well to the vaccine. Therefore, those who are clinically extremely vulnerable should continue to follow government advice on reducing their risk of infection. Consideration has been given to vaccination of household contacts of immunosuppressed individuals.
However, at this time there are no data on the size of the effect of COVID-19 vaccines on transmission. Evidence is expected to accrue during the course of the vaccine programme, and until that time the committee is not in a position to advise vaccination solely on the basis of indirect protection. Once sufficient evidence becomes available the committee will consider options for a cocooning strategy for immunosuppressed individuals, including whether any specific vaccine is preferred in this population.
There are no data as yet on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines in pregnancy, either from human or animal studies. Given the lack of evidence, JCVI favours a precautionary approach, and does not currently advise COVID-19 vaccination in pregnancy.
Women should be advised not to come forward for vaccination if they may be pregnant or are planning a pregnancy within three months of the first dose.
Data are anticipated which will inform discussions on vaccination in pregnancy. JCVI will review these as soon as they become available.
Following infection, almost all children will have asymptomatic infection or mild disease. There is very limited data on vaccination in adolescents, with no data on vaccination in younger children, at this time. The committee advises that only those children at very high risk of exposure and serious outcomes, such as older children with severe neuro-disabilities that require residential care, should be offered vaccination.
Clinicians should discuss the risks and benefits of vaccination with a person with parental responsibility, who should be told about the paucity of safety data for the vaccine in children aged under 16 years. More detail on vaccination in children is set out in the Green Book – Immunisation Against Infectious Disease.
Underlying health conditions
There is good evidence that certain underlying health conditions increase the risk of morbidity and mortality from COVID-19. When compared to persons without underlying health conditions, the absolute increased risk in those with underlying health conditions is considered generally to be lower than the increased risk in persons over the age of 65 years (with the exception of the clinically extremely vulnerable).
The committee’s advice is to offer vaccination to those aged 65 years and over followed by those in clinical risk groups aged 16 years and over.
The risk groups identified by the committee are set out below:
chronic respiratory disease, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis and severe asthma
chronic heart disease (and vascular disease)
chronic kidney disease
chronic liver disease
chronic neurological disease including epilepsy
severe and profound learning disability
solid organ, bone marrow and stem cell transplant recipients
people with specific cancers
immunosuppression due to disease or treatment
asplenia and splenic dysfunction
severe mental illness
Individuals within these risk groups who are clinically extremely vulnerable are discussed separately (see above). Further advice on risk groups, including clear definitions, are set out in the Green Book – Immunisation Against Infectious Disease.
Multiple social and societal drivers are recognised to contribute towards increased risk from COVID-19. JCVI considered it important to understand the factors underlying health inequalities in COVID-19 giving due consideration to relevant scientific evidence, ethical principles and vaccine programme deliverability. The issues considered are set out in annex A.
There is clear evidence that certain black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups have higher rates of infection, and higher rates of serious disease, morbidity and mortality. There is no strong evidence that ethnicity by itself (or genetics) is the sole explanation for observed differences in rates of severe illness and deaths. What is clear is that certain health conditions are associated with increased risk of serious disease, and these health conditions are often overrepresented in certain BAME groups. It is also clear that societal factors, such as occupation, household size, deprivation, and access to healthcare can increase susceptibility to COVID-19 and worsen outcomes following infection. These factors are playing a large role in the inequalities being seen with COVID-19.
Good vaccine coverage in BAME groups will be the most important factor within a vaccine programme in reducing inequalities for this group. Prioritisation of persons with underlying health conditions will also provide for greater vaccination of BAME communities who are disproportionately affected by such health conditions.
The committee’s advice is for NHS England and Improvement, the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England and the devolved administrations to work together to ensure that inequalities are identified and addressed in implementation. This could be through culturally competent and tailored communications and flexible models of delivery, aimed at ensuring everything possible is done to promote good uptake in BAME groups and in groups who may experience inequalities in access to, or engagement with, healthcare services. These tailored implementation measures should be applied across all priority groups during the vaccination programme.
Occupational vaccination (other than frontline health and social care workers)
The committee considered evidence on the risk of exposure and risk of mortality by occupation. Under the priority groups advised below, those over 50 years of age, and all those 16 years of age and over in a risk group, would be eligible for vaccination within the first phase of the programme. This prioritisation captures almost all preventable deaths from COVID-19, including those associated with occupational exposure to infection. As such, JCVI does not advise further prioritisation by occupation during the first phase of the programme.