Page updated: Friday 1 April 2022
An effective vaccine is the best way to protect people from coronavirus and will save thousands of lives.
Following extensive safety trials and authorisation by the independent regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), effective COVID-19 vaccines are available in the UK for free.
Information about the vaccination in other languages can be found on the NHS website.
What are the third and fourth doses of the COVID-19 vaccine?
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) recommends that anyone over the age of 12 who are severely immunosuppressed, such as those on certain cancer treatments, will be offered a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. This is also known as a third primary dose. Three months after the third dose, those who are severely immunosuppressed will have a booster dose (a fourth dose).
This is because the OCTAVE study suggested that these people may not mount a full response to the vaccination and so may be less protected than the wider population. The third and booster dose will help protect those with severely weakened immune systems from the virus.
Who can have the third dose?
The third dose is being offered to those over 12 years old who were severely immunosuppressed when they had their first or second vaccine. These include people with cancer who have had immunosuppressive chemotherapy or radiotherapy in the last six months. Speak to your healthcare team if you think you may be eligible for the third dose.
The third dose will not be offered to everyone on the original list of clinically extremely vulnerable people.
Which vaccine will I get?
Those aged 18 and older will be offered either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Some people may be offered the AstraZeneca vaccine. For those aged 12 to 17, the Pfizer vaccine is preferred.
When will I get the third dose?
The third dose should be given at least eight weeks after the second dose. This may vary depending on whether you are on immunosuppressive treatment. For example, you may be offered the vaccine before you start chemotherapy, or between cycles of treatment, rather than during treatment. This is to improve the chance of you getting the best response to the vaccine and immunity against coronavirus. Your healthcare team will decide when the best time is for you.
The NHS will contact people as soon as possible to discuss their needs and arrange an appointment for a third dose.
How will I find out if I should have the third dose?
People who are severely immunosuppressed and are eligible for the third dose will receive a letter from their GP or their healthcare team. The letter will have information about arranging your appointment for your third dose. If you think you should have been invited to have a third dose but have not received a letter, contact your GP.
Is this different from the booster vaccine?
The third dose of the primary vaccine is not a booster and is separate from the booster vaccination programme. The aim of the third dose is to improve the protection against coronavirus in those who are severely immunosuppressed, who may not have mounted a full response to the first two doses. It is an extra ‘top-up’ to the level seen in the general population after the first two doses.
We don’t know if a third dose will improve immunity against coronavirus, but it is likely to be helpful to those who may not be as protected against coronavirus.
In contrast, a booster dose is one that is given much further down the line, separately from the other doses of vaccination, to extend the duration of protection that has been given.
People who have had their third primary dose of the vaccine will likely now be invited for a spring booster (a fourth dose).
What is the booster vaccination programme?
The JCVI advise that booster vaccines will be offered to everyone over aged 18 and over. This is to maintain the high level of protection against hospitalisation from the virus during the winter months.
A booster dose is one that is given much further down the line, separately from the primary doses of vaccination, to extend the duration of protection that has been given.
People who have bowel cancer and are immunosuppressed will have:
- three primary doses of the vaccine
- one booster dose of the vaccine
Those who are not immunosuppressed will have:
- two primary doses of the vaccine
- one booster dose of the vaccine
Will I be offered a second dose of the booster?
From March 2022, the government are rolling out a spring booster vaccination programme. This is a second booster dose of the vaccine offered to:
- people aged 75 and older
- residents in care homes for older people
- those with weakened immune systems
You should be offered an appointment around six months after your last dose of the vaccine.
Is it safe to have the COVID-19 and flu vaccine around the same time?
The JCVI have advised that it is safe to have both the flu and COVID-19 vaccines around the same time. Having one of the vaccines should not delay you from getting the other. It is important you take up the offer of both vaccines when you are able to receive it. You may receive them separately or at the same time.
Are the vaccines safe for people with bowel cancer?
The vaccines are safe for people with bowel cancer who are having cancer treatment and/or on clinical trials.
It’s recommended that you don’t receive the vaccine on the same day as your cancer treatment, if:
- you’re experiencing severe side effects from treatment
- you’re within seven days before a scheduled surgery and until full recovery after being discharged.
All vaccines go through robust clinical trials, safety checks and quality controls to make sure they are safe and to maximise patient benefit. The UK has some of the highest safety standards in the world and the MHRA is globally recognised for requiring the highest standards for quality, safety and medicines regulation.
The trials for the vaccines involved lots of different people with underlying health conditions so that researchers can see if the vaccines have an effect on them. There’s no indication that there should be any difficulty in giving the vaccines to people with underlying conditions.
If you have any worries or questions, speak to your healthcare team.
Will the vaccines protect me from getting COVID-19?
The COVID-19 vaccines that have been approved in the UK are effective at protecting against coronavirus. Two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine should give you good protection. Having a booster or third dose the vaccine will protect you against COVID-19 for longer.
The vaccine may be less effective in some cancer patients. This might be because their immune systems are weaker due to treatment, such as from chemotherapy, radiotherapy or targeted therapies. More research is needed to fully understand why the vaccine is less effective in people with cancer. The vaccines do still give some protection against the virus and so it is important that people continue to have the vaccine.
There is a chance you might still get or spread coronavirus even if you have the vaccine. This is why it is important to continue to act carefully and remain cautious.
You can't catch COVID-19 from the vaccine. The Government is closely monitoring the impact on individuals, on NHS pressures and on the spread of the virus.
What are the side effects of the vaccine?
Like all medicines, vaccines can cause side effects. Most of the side effects are mild and don’t usually last longer than a week. Not everyone will get side effects.
The side effects can include:
- having a sore arm where the needle went in
- feeling tired
- a headache
- feeling achy
- feeling or being sick
If you have a history of serious allergic reactions to the ingredients in the vaccines, you shouldn’t get the vaccine. A list of ingredients in the vaccines can be found here:
If you have a history of serious reactions to other allergens such as foods and certain medicines, you can have the vaccine.
Can I have the vaccine if I am having cancer treatment?
If you're planned to have treatment for cancer soon, you may be offered the vaccine before your operation or before the start of your treatment. This can depend on different factors, for example how safe it is to delay your cancer treatment by around a couple of weeks, to allow time for you to have the vaccine. Urgent treatments shouldn't be delayed by vaccination.
You may also have the vaccine if you have finished cancer treatment and are having regular follow up appointments.
Ask your healthcare team if you can have the vaccine or have any questions about the vaccine and your treatment.
Can I choose which vaccine I have?
No. All of the vaccines that are available have been approved because they pass the MHRA’s tests on safety and are effective in protecting you against COVID-19.
Are the vaccines compulsory?
There are currently no plans in place to make the COVID-19 vaccine compulsory. The UK operates a system of informed consent for vaccinations.
What is the vaccine pass?
The NHS COVID pass lets individuals share their coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccination and test results in a secure way. You can get the vaccine pass through the NHS app, an email or a letter. In England, the UK government now recommends the NHS COVID Pass is only used for foreign travel.
- Find out more about the NHS COVID pass in England
- In Scotland you can share your COVID status or COVID passport
- In Wales you can get a NHS COVID pass
- In Northern Ireland you can get a COVID certificate
For full information about the COVID-19 vaccines, visit the government websites for your nation.
Listen to Consultant Clinical Oncologist, Professor Mark Saunders answer a range of questions about the coronavirus vaccine and bowel cancer in the video below.