Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Science & Tech
5 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 1:20pm

Covid-19 vaccines and alcohol: a case study in confusion

My attempt to find out whether it’s safe to drink alcohol after receiving a Covid-19 vaccine exposed the perils of reporting on science during a pandemic.

By Rachel Cunliffe

There is no evidence to suggest that drinking alcohol impacts the efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccine. I know this because the UK medicines regulator has this week said so. 

A few days ago I ran a Twitter poll. My partner was about to get the vaccine and when out on a walk with some friends, he joked about the celebratory drink he was going to have afterwards. They looked concerned. “Isn’t the guidance to abstain from alcohol for two weeks after, to boost your immune response?” they asked. 

Neither of us had ever heard about any drinking guidelines in the case of vaccines, so that evening I investigated. I found a tranche of media reports – from the BBC, the Daily Mail, the i, the Metro, and others – suggesting exactly what our friends had said. 

The advice not to drink alcohol for 48 hours before being vaccinated and for two weeks afterwards appears to have originated from Drinkaware, the alcohol education charity, whose aim is to “reduce alcohol-related harm by helping people make better choices about their drinking”. 

In a news release on its website, the chair of the charity’s medical advisory panel, Dr Fiona Sim, urges people to get the Covid vaccine regardless of whether or not they drink, but says: “As far as alcohol is concerned, we advise that you consider not drinking for two days before, and up to two weeks after you’ve been vaccinated, to try to ensure your immune system is at its best to respond to the vaccine and protect you.” 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

I found this page fairly easily, along with the information that there is no published data on the effect of alcohol on the vaccine. However, Drinkaware’s advice had been widely reported, under headlines such as “BOOZE BAN Don’t drink alcohol for two days before and two WEEKS after Covid vaccine, experts warn”, which made me cautious. I wondered what advice people had been given by their healthcare providers when vaccinated, and if they had been following it.  

So I put out a poll on Twitter: 

People responded to the poll – 11,555 of them – and the overwhelming majority (discounting the “Show me answers” option) clicked “Ignoring”. Reassuring. Even more reassuring: hundreds of comments flooded in from people baffled about the very question. They had never seen this advice (clearly the articles above had passed them by), and hadn’t been warned off alcohol following their own jabs, except possibly for the same evening to reduce side effects.

A few hours later, satisfied that the Drinkaware advice did not have enough of a basis to be communicated to patients getting their vaccines, I tweeted a follow-up:

I didn’t delete the poll, as I thought it was interesting. Clearly some people had been aware of the advice (seven per cent said they were sticking to it, with an additional 4.3 per cent saying they had avoided drinking but not for the full two weeks). I thought other people who had heard it – like the friends who had brought it to my attention – might find it useful. 

What I did not expect was the backlash. More and more people began accusing me of spreading misinformation by tweeting the poll. I had never said not drinking was official guidance, but it appears by asking the question I inadvertently panicked some people into thinking they had done something wrong after their own vaccines. I was also accused of increasing vaccine hesitancy by implying that people who drink shouldn’t get the jab. I had never suggested this, and nor had the media reports or Drinkaware’s own guidance (Dr Sim urged the opposite), but people argued that the repetition of the advice alone was dangerous.  

Less than 24 hours later, the Daily Mail ran an online story quoting my poll, headlined “No evidence that drinking alcohol after a Covid vaccine interferes with how it works, UK regulator says”. It appears that, prompted at least in part by what I had tweeted, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had been asked about Drinkaware’s advice and issued a response: “There is currently no evidence that drinking alcohol interferes with the efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccines.”

I am relieved to have a definitive answer. But the whole episode has made me think about best practice when reporting on science during a pandemic. Was I spreading fake news by tweeting the poll? Clearly hundreds of people thought so. And in retrospect, I should have made it clear from the start that the advice had not come from the NHS or Public Health England. But the accurate information is much easier to find on the web now as a result: if you google, “Can I drink alcohol after the Covid vaccine?” the top results are the recent articles including the MHRA statement, rather than the original reports of Drinkaware’s advice, headlined with “warnings” from “experts”. 

Were the original reports irresponsible, in that case? And what about Drinkaware’s news release itself, which issued its standard advice (consider cutting back on drinking) under the guise of vaccine efficacy? It surely isn’t bad advice to think about reducing alcohol consumption, but what if it prompts drinkers to doubt whether they should get the vaccine? Is this a situation where precautionary messaging could actually cause harm? And if so, do I bear some responsibility for asking the question? 

I don’t have answers to any of the above. I think it’s useful for people who have heard the Drinkaware advice to know it isn’t official guidance, which is why I’ve left the poll on my Twitter feed, with a follow-up tweet adding more information. But I will be thinking harder about how I communicate science questions in future, and whether I am inadvertently fuelling unhelpful narratives with the language I use. I would perhaps urge editors writing headlines to do the same.  

And if anyone does want a celebratory drink after getting vaccinated, they have my permission – and the MHRA’s – to go for it.