1. Main findings

  • For many participants across all of the demographic groups, the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines had no impact on behaviour in relation to following the official coronavirus (COVID-19) government guidance to stop the spread of coronavirus, and they believed that the restrictions currently in place would need to continue for some time after the rollout.
  • A few participants who were very optimistic that the COVID-19 vaccines would bring an end to the pandemic, felt the vaccines made them more likely to comply, as they saw the winter restrictions of 2020 and the early 2021 lockdown restrictions as ‘the last stretch.’
  • A few participants said that the COVID-19 vaccines rollout would make them less likely to comply with the guidance or believed they could stop complying with the guidance after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Some participants were positive about receiving the COVID-19 vaccines and viewed it as a source of hope that the pandemic would come to an end or that restrictions would be eased.
  • However, some had concerns or were undecided about having them, and a few said they would refuse a COVID-19 vaccine. For many of these participants, reasons for concern about the COVID-19 vaccines were uncertainty about their side effects, feeling that they had been developed too quickly and therefore may not be safe, and doubts about their effectiveness either against other strands of coronavirus, or in preventing the transmission of coronavirus by those who had been vaccinated.
  • A few individuals had concerns about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines but had weighed this against the benefits such as being able to return to their old lifestyle and decided that on balance they would probably receive it.
  • There was an appetite for more information among some of the participants who had doubts about the COVID-19 vaccines, including published data on its effectiveness, and what the different types of COVID-19 vaccines contained.

In these findings we use the term ‘coronavirus (COVID-19) government guidance’ and ‘COVID-19 guidance’ to refer to the official government guidance applicable at the time of each participant’s interview, relating to the coronavirus as published on government websites. This information incorporates both general advice from the government, and rules that are enforceable by law, that aim to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

2. About the findings

The ‘Feelings and compliance around the coronavirus vaccines’ section is based on responses to questions about the COVID-19 vaccines rollout, asked during the early stages of the rollout, between 23 December 2020 and 22 January 2021. The questions were asked as part of a wider interview about participants’ behaviour during the coronavirus pandemic, and findings are drawn from participants across six demographic groups: low income workers, young people, students, parents, ethnic minority participants and high income participants.

3. The impact of the COVID-19 vaccines on compliance with official guidance

For many participants, the COVID-19 vaccines had no impact on behaviour in relation to following the official guidance to stop the spread of the coronavirus. For a few participants, it made them more likely to comply, and for a few others it made them less likely to comply with the COVID-19 guidance.

Mostly no impact on compliance

Among participants whose compliance was not impacted by the COVID-19 vaccines, many said they would continue to behave in the same way because they did not believe the COVID-19 vaccines would be fully effective in combatting the coronavirus and therefore they thought they would need to continue following the COVID-19 guidance beyond the completion of the vaccination programme. For example, some participants felt that having a COVID-19 vaccine did not stop someone from spreading the coronavirus, so they would need to continue to follow the COVID-19 guidance.

“I don’t think it would [change my behaviour] even after I got the vaccine because I think I saw you can still carry it and pass it on even if you have been vaccinated. It doesn’t make sense to change behaviour.”

Male, 18 to 24 years, low income worker, England

One participant felt that although they themselves would receive the COVID-19 vaccine, there would always be a percentage of people who would refuse it and therefore the coronavirus would continue to exist, and people would have to continue to follow the COVID-19 guidance for a few more years.

“I know a certain percentage won’t have it. It will be a gradual thing – for a few years we will have to follow a certain amount of rules.”

Female, 40 to 44 years, ethnic minority participant, England

Another participant felt the COVID-19 vaccines would give a boost to the economy but believed it would take years to overcome COVID-19 more fully, based on previous vaccines.

“Covid isn’t going anywhere quickly. The vaccine is there just to appease people, to help the markets to bounce back and for businesses to think there is a future. When you look at the history behind vaccines it takes ten years.”

Male, 45 to 49 years, high income participant, England

Similarly, one participant felt he would still need to follow the COVID-19 guidance after the COVID-19 vaccines had been rolled out because he believed the coronavirus would mutate, and the COVID-19 vaccines therefore would not be effective. Although he said that his behaviour would not change, he was demotivated by messaging saying that the COVID-19 vaccines would end the pandemic, because he felt this was untrue.

Other participants however were more optimistic. They believed the COVID-19 vaccines signaled an end to the pandemic, and that they would need to continue complying with the COVID-19 guidance until the majority of the population were vaccinated, but then expected restrictions to ease. This group were conscious that they needed to continue to stick to the COVID-19 guidance because, although the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines was a positive sign, coronavirus “had not gone away yet.”

Some participants for whom the COVID-19 vaccines had no impact on behaviour had reservations about receiving COVID-19 vaccines themselves because they were concerned about safety. They commonly believed that the COVID-19 vaccines had been developed too quickly and therefore were concerned that the effects could not be known. These participants would either refuse the COVID-19 vaccines or were still undecided about receiving them. This is explored in more detail in the ‘Views about having the COVID-19 vaccines’ section below.

Positive impact on compliance for a few: ‘The last stretch’

While many participants said the COVID-19 vaccines had no impact on how much they would comply with the COVID-19 guidance, a few said that the news of the COVID-19 vaccines made them more likely to comply with the guidance, and all of these individuals were motivated by a belief that the COVID-19 vaccines would signal an end to the pandemic and the beginning of restrictions being lifted. They viewed the COVID-19 vaccines as a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, by which they meant a reason to believe that the current situation would end soon. This encouraged them to be patient and make an extra effort to endure the restrictions and follow the COVID-19 guidance. Those who said that the COVID-19 vaccines encouraged them to comply were either of mixed compliance or were more compliant with the COVID-19 guidance.

“It makes me feel positive and weirdly keen to be careful because it’s like ‘not long now.’”

Male, 40 to 44 years, parent, Wales

“If the vaccine wasn’t here, I think I would have had more of a ‘just sod this now’ attitude, now we need to just try and live our lives, we can’t live like this for the next four or five years. But now that there’s an end goal in sight I feel it’s even more important to be sensible.”

Female, 45 to 49 years, high income participant, Wales

Negative impact on compliance for a few

A few participants felt that the COVID-19 vaccines had or would make them less likely to comply with the COVID-19 guidance.

Some of these participants were parents who had a good understanding of how coronavirus spreads and were optimistic about the impact of the COVID-19 vaccines. They were less compliant around social mixing particularly with regards to activities involving their children but adhered to COVID-19 guidance about wearing a mask and washing and sanitising their hands. For one of these participants the knowledge that the COVID-19 vaccines were being given to others (although he was not in a priority group) made him feel more relaxed about following the COVID-19 guidance, because he felt optimistic that the vaccines would bring the pandemic to an end.

“[Anything that demotivates you to comply?] Maybe the vaccine I suppose in a way, because if the vaccine’s coming out you might feel a bit more relaxed about things.”

Male, 35 to 39 years, parent, England

Others felt they would become less compliant after they had received the COVID-19 vaccines themselves. One high income participant said that he would stop social distancing and wearing a mask when he received a COVID-19 vaccine, as he believed that it would negate the need to do these things. Another high income participant understood the need to continue to comply with the COVID-19 guidance but had to explain this to his father who had received a COVID-19 vaccine and expected to be able to see his extended family as a result.

“My dad would love to be able to go and do what he wants, he doesn’t think about whether my mum has had the jab. I have to keep reiterating the fact that this is not fool proof.”

Female, 50 to 54 years, high income participant, Northern Ireland

4. Views about having the COVID-19 vaccines

Some participants were positive about receiving COVID-19 vaccines, while some were unsure and a few planned to refuse a COVID-19 vaccine when it was offered to them.

Motivations for having the COVID-19 vaccines

Those who were positive about receiving the COVID-19 vaccines mostly felt optimistic that the COVID-19 vaccines signaled a likely end to the pandemic or an easing of restrictions. As described in the ‘Positive impact on compliance for a few: ‘The last stretch’’ section above, these participants often described the COVID-19 vaccines as ‘a light at the end of the tunnel’ that helped them to persevere with the current restrictions in place (the winter restrictions of 2020 and early 2021 lockdown) by providing a source of optimism and hope.

“It’s something to encourage people to hang on there and hope – to encourage them to keep going.”

Male, 65 to 69 years, high income participant, Scotland

Some were motivated to receive COVID-19 vaccines because they assumed that this would mean that restrictions would be lifted, and life would return to what it had been like before the pandemic. This was typically talked about with a sense of impatience to ‘get on with’ the vaccination rollout so that things could return to normal. Participants mentioned looking forward to children being able to go back to school and being able to go on holiday.

“I keep saying to my kids, with any luck, the end is in sight, when you go back to school next time you won’t go off again.”

Female, 45 to 49 years, high income participant, Wales

One participant who had recently received a COVID-19 vaccine joked that as soon as she had left her appointment, she called her sister and told her she had got her “passport to go on holiday.”

A sense of impatience was also expressed by a few participants from the devolved nations, who compared the rate of the rollout in their country to others and were frustrated with it being slower.

“All I know is that Wales is dire, 150,000 out of five million is dire… I would vaccinate myself if I had to.”

Male, 65 to 59 years, high income participant, Wales

Ideas that the COVID-19 vaccines would bring an end to the pandemic, or that they would lead to an easing of restrictions, were very powerful drivers and many participants who were motivated by them also said they would receive COVID-19 vaccines themselves.

Other motivating factors mentioned by a few participants included encouraging older relatives to receive COVID-19 vaccines so they were protected against people who were not complying with the COVID-19 guidance, and for NHS workers to have them to protect their patients.

One participant also mentioned that they thought everyone should receive a COVID-19 vaccine to ‘protect the NHS.’ Having recently needed the NHS for an elderly relative he saw the COVID-19 vaccines as important in ensuring that the number of COVID-19 cases could be kept down so beds remained available for other people who needed care.

A few participants also said the COVID-19 vaccines made them feel more positive about the UK because the country was ahead of others in rolling it out.

Concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines

Some participants had significant concerns about receiving the COVID-19 vaccines, most commonly because they were not sure about their effects or, for a few, because they had heard negative reports from unverified news sources.

The most common concern among these participants about the COVID-19 vaccines was not knowing their side effects. Participants who held this view often felt the COVID-19 vaccines had been ‘rushed out’ and were concerned this would mean they were unsafe. This was based on the speed that the COVID-19 vaccines were developed, and not being able to know the long-term effects on those who received them.

“I’m not very open to taking it personally… there are years and years that go into creating vaccines and I think this one has been a bit rushed through.”

Male, 35 to 39 years, parent, Wales

“I don’t want it until a lot of people have had it. It puts me off… how quickly it’s been made.”

Male, 18 to 24 years, student, England

A range of participants across all six demographic groups held this view, including some with a high degree of knowledge about coronavirus, and some who had a medical background. One participant for example worked as a healthcare provider and was due to receive a COVID-19 vaccine but was undecided. She was concerned about how new it was and that the side effects were unknown. She had also had a bad experience with a different vaccine in the past and she knew someone who had received a COVID-19 vaccine and became mildly ill. In a second example, a medical practitioner was initially sceptical about the COVID-19 vaccines because of how quickly they were developed but had decided to receive one after hearing about the amount of time and money that was invested in them, which increased her confidence.

Another area of uncertainty among participants who had concerns about receiving COVID-19 vaccines was around their effectiveness. Some participants from the low income workers, ethnic minority, young people and students’ groups had doubts about how good the COVID-19 vaccines would be at combatting COVID-19. These included:

  • Concerns that the COVID-19 vaccines would not be effective against different mutations,
  • A belief that the COVID-19 vaccines could not stop the spread of coronavirus,
  • Knowing someone who had a COVID-19 vaccine and fallen ill and taking this as a sign that the vaccines cause illness.

Many participants who mentioned these issues were not certain that they were true, but they often added to several concerns or questions that individuals had about the COVID-19 vaccines. Only one participant felt that he ‘knew’ the COVID-19 vaccines did not prevent the virus spreading.

“The over 80s are really the guinea pigs… As a [public figure] said, you can’t know how effective it will be until three months down the line, I’m happy to wait until next year.”

Female, 55 to 59 years, ethnic minority participant, England

Other concerns mentioned by a few participants were rooted in misunderstandings about how vaccines are developed and work. For example, participants questioned why it was not possible to create a vaccine for other illnesses such as cancer, if a vaccine for COVID-19 could be created so quickly.

“I’m open to seeing where it goes, seeing how things go, but why is there no HIV vaccine or cancer vaccine… it’s just happened so quickly.”

Male, 35 to 39 years, low income worker, Scotland

One participant thought that you could still catch the flu after having a flu vaccine and concluded it would probably be possible to catch COVID-19 after having a COVID-19 vaccine.

One participant felt that his child’s growth and development had been negatively affected by receiving another vaccination three years ago. As a result of this, he advised other family members not to receive that vaccine and planned to advise them not to receive COVID-19 vaccines either. The participant was of the view that if someone’s immune system was not very strong, “being pumped with [a virus] can only be a bad thing” and he preferred to fight the viruses using his own immune system.

A few participants also had concerns about the government’s decision to deliver the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccines 12 weeks after the first instead of three. They understood three weeks to be the correct amount of time and suspected that the government had tried to extend the time period so that they could vaccinate more people, while putting people at risk of the COVID-19 vaccines not being effective.

While participants who were unsure or undecided about receiving the COVID-19 vaccines were from a range of compliance levels, all participants who said they would refuse the COVID-19 vaccines were from less compliant groups (in terms of following the COVID-19 guidance) and nearly all showed low levels of trust in scientific experts. Many of these participants felt that it was important they make their own decisions or conduct their own research rather than trust scientific expertise.

Misinformation

A few participants from all demographic groups except high income participants, had been exposed to negative and unverified stories about the COVID-19 vaccines either online or through word of mouth. These included stories that people had died or had seizures as a result of the COVID-19 vaccines and that the vaccines could impact women’s fertility.

‘’We don’t know enough about this vaccine. You hear too many horror stories about it…saying it affects your fertility, people are having side effects.”

Female, 40 to 44 years, parent, England

One ethnic minority participant had heard ‘scare stories’ about people dying from receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, from families in her community which she had refuted. Another participant had a friend who worked for a medical company who told him that the COVID-19 vaccines were unsafe. Conversely, one participant who initially felt sceptical of the COVID-19 vaccines felt much more confident about them after speaking to a nurse.

A few participants had also heard conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccines, including that it contained a microchip developed by Bill Gates, or that it was a way for the government to control them by stopping people travelling if they did not have a COVID-19 vaccine. These participants said they did not believe these theories and this included one individual who wanted a COVID-19 vaccine, one who was undecided and one who did not want a COVID-19 vaccine.

Weighing up the risks

A few participants said they would receive COVID-19 vaccines despite having concerns about them. These participants shared the same concerns as those who would refuse the COVID-19 vaccines, including uncertainty about the COVID-19 vaccines’ side effects or their ability to bring an end to the pandemic. However, they balanced these risks against the benefits of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. One participant for example had concerns about safety but felt that it would be worth receiving a COVID-19 vaccine if it meant that restrictions would ease, and he could return to his old lifestyle. Another described the COVID-19 vaccines as a “big experiment” that “we all have to help in”, in the hope that it will combat the virus.

“It has gone through and been tested very fast in comparison to other jabs and medications … for me personally in a school, just to protect myself I think I would have it.”

Female, 18 to 24 years, young person, Wales

Increasing information

There was an appetite for more information among some of the participants who had doubts about the COVID-19 vaccines, to ease their concerns. This included being told which COVID-19 vaccine they would be given so they could research it beforehand. One individual also wanted the government to publish statistics about the success rates of the COVID-19 vaccines to improve transparency and increase confidence that they worked.

“We are supposed to get it next week but I’m not sure whether to have it or not, I feel as though I don’t know enough about it. If I don’t get it next week it will be another six months before we are offered it again. If it’s going to get rid of this virus it would probably be good for everybody to get it, the worry is what is it going to do to you.”

Female, 60 to 64 years, low income worker, Northern Ireland

“This is a time when it would be good to listen to scientific advice … we don’t know enough about potential side effects in the long term – whether there are any.”

Male, 18 to 24 years, low income worker, England

A few participants said that they would do their own research before receiving COVID-19 vaccines, or they had already researched this for a friend or relative. One individual said that she had had to reassure a family member who had initially turned down a COVID-19 vaccine because she did not know enough about it. The participant researched it herself and spoke to her relative’s GP, particularly about which COVID-19 vaccine would be most appropriate for the relative’s medical history.

Other participants mentioned wanting to postpone receiving COVID-19 vaccines until more people had received them. They were often concerned that the development of the COVID-19 vaccines had been so quick, that it could not have been possible to assess the side effects in full and therefore viewed the initial stages of the COVID-19 vaccines rollout as a period during which they could monitor any negative impacts before risking their own health by receiving it.

5. Data sources and quality

More detailed quality and methodology information on strengths, limitations, appropriate uses, and how the data were gathered is available in the Compliance with coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance across the UK QMI report. 

6. Related links

Coronavirus and compliance with guidance across the UK: April 2021

Bulletin | Released 12 April 2021

Summarising the attitudes and behaviours of different social groups in relation to coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance in the UK.