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Vaccines are a type of prescription-only medicine. Their purpose is to stimulate a person’s immune system to produce antibodies that fight a specific disease, so that the person develops ‘immunological memory’. If the body is later exposed to the same natural infection, immunological memory enables the immune system to recognise and respond to it rapidly, thereby preventing or modifying the severity of the disease.

Vaccines are a key part of preventative medicine and are described by the NHS as “the most effective way to prevent infectious diseases.”

What is in vaccines?

Vaccines are designed to trigger an immune response without making the person experience symptoms of the disease they are protecting against.

The main ingredient of a vaccine is a “small amount of bacteria, virus or toxin that has been weakened or destroyed in a laboratory first.” Vaccines containing bacteria or viruses that have been weakened are known as ‘live attenuated vaccines’.

Vaccines containing whole bacteria or viruses which have been killed, or small parts of bacteria or viruses, such as proteins or sugars, are called ‘inactived vaccines.’

Vaccines that rely on nucleic acid-based vectors (DNA or RNA – the genetic code of a virus) are also under development, including for Covid-19: two such vaccines (the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines) have recently received a temporary authorisation for use from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the UK.

Vaccination programmes

Vaccination programmes against specific diseases began in the UK in the nineteenth century, though modern, nationwide programmes took off following the establishment of the NHS in 1948. The UK’s current routine immunisation schedule provides protection against 14 vaccine-preventable infections, including measles, meningococcal disease and polio. The majority of vaccinations are given during childhood though some, such as vaccination against shingles, are aimed at those aged 70+.

Recommendations for vaccination coverage (the percentage of people from the target population who have received a specific vaccine) are made by the World Health Organization (WHO). It suggests that, at a national level, at least 95% of children are immunised against vaccine-preventable diseases and these targets have been adopted by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

For the year 2019-20, with the exception of DTaP/IPV/Hib vaccine at age five (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio and Haemophilus influenzae type b), none of the routine vaccinations met the 95% target at the national, UK level. There is also geographical variation. The National Audit Office, for example, highlighted lower levels of uptake in pre-school vaccinations in London, compared to the rest of England.

Factors identified by NHS England and Public Health England (PHE) which affect uptake of childhood vaccines include:

  • inconsistent call/recall (direct communication between health care providers and parents or carers to arrange their child’s vaccinations);
  • difficulties in timely access to healthcare professionals;
  • incomplete data on vaccination uptake (NHS England and PHE identified a range of potential inaccuracies in the reported data and do not know the extent to which these affect information on rates of uptake);
  • ‘under-served’ populations;
  • anti-vaccination messages; and
  • vaccine hesitancy among a small minority of parents.

Vaccination policy in England

Health is a devolved matter. National strategic oversight of vaccination policy in England is provided by the DHSC. The department is advised by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI), an independent expert advisory committee, and the Commission on Human Medicines.

Responsibility for commissioning national immunisation programmes in England rests with NHS England. The DHSC sets performance targets and Public Health England provides oversight and surveillance of vaccine-preventable diseases.  

Pre-school and adult vaccinations are usually delivered by GP surgeries and commissioned through the NHS GP contract. School-age services are commissioned by seven regional NHS England teams and delivered through School Immunisation Teams.

Additional support has been put in place specifically for a Covid-19 vaccine programme, such as the establishment of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, which aims to “drive forward the development and production of a coronavirus vaccine”. Further information on the Covid-19 vaccine programme can be found in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology publication Regulatory approval of COVID-19 vaccines in the UK (December 2020).

In August 2019, the WHO’s European Regional Verification Commission for Measles and Rubella Elimination (RVC) determined the UK had lost its measles elimination status. The Government responded by setting out measures aimed at increasing immunisation rates for the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination, such as promoting ‘catch-up’ vaccination programmes for 10-11-year-olds.

The DHSC is also due to publish a 10-year vaccination strategy, to increase uptake of all recommended vaccinations across all communities and areas, but it has been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mandatory vaccination

Vaccines offered through the national immunisation programme in the UK are not mandatory. Vaccinations are also not currently mandatory in the UK during a pandemic.

Medical and ethical opinion is divided on the introduction of immunisation policies that involve some degree of coercion (such as fines). Some countries, such as Italy and France, have mandatory vaccination policies in place, an overview of which is provided on pages 43-48. In response to falling vaccination rates, some countries, including Italy, have extended existing mandatory vaccination programmes, or introduced them for the first time, such as in Germany. Certain policies criminalise vaccine refusal, such as by fining parents, or make access to services – such as state-run schools – contingent on immunisation status.

The effectiveness of mandatory vaccination policies is not clear, partly because attitudes to immunisation vary between countries and there can be several factors contributing to declining or poor immunisation coverage.

Other resources

Resources on vaccination and Covid-19 published by the House of Commons Library and by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) can be accessed via the Vaccination and Covid-19 landing page. The House of Lords Library has also published Covid-19 vaccine: Winter update (10 November 2020). 


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