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10 February 2021

In the Covid-19 vaccine hub I see a dignified procession of elderly patients receiving their shot at life

None of us GPs and nurses have been thanked so often and so fulsomely. 

By Phil Whitaker

For my most recent shift at our primary care network’s vaccination hub, I took the role of lead clinician, stationed by the anaphylaxis and resuscitation equipment and wearing a red tabard to make me readily identifiable to any of the vaccinators. Queries came in sporadically. One patient had suffered a severe reaction to a tetanus jab in the past: was this a contraindication to the Pfizer vaccine? Someone else was anxious about the impact of their immunosuppressant medication. For the most part, though, I spent my time providing cover for colleagues when the need arose, and coordinating the volunteer “navigators” who direct patients round the site.

We’ve taken over a large community centre; I watched patient after patient coming in from the entrance lobby. Just inside the doorway, they would invariably halt and look around, trying to take it in. The main hall has been sectioned off with red ropes to form an anticlockwise circuit that feeds into multiple lanes. Each lane leads to a numbered privacy screen, behind which sits a vaccinator and clerk. Yellow flow markers and social distancing stickers pattern the floor. There’s a long counter set into one wall; the kitchen area beyond hotches with pharmacists, carefully thawing and diluting vial after vial of vaccine. This hall is usually a venue for am-dram productions, dance classes and so on. It is a bewildering transformation.

Many of the patients were children during the Second World War. I wonder whether they remember air raid shelters being constructed, blackout precautions being observed, family members going off to serve – and whether this accounts for the stoicism so often on display. Almost all have been shielding since the first wave; I hear over and over how this is their first outing in almost a year. It feels surreal: these thousands of elderly patients emerging from their cocoons – blinking, almost, in the daylight – to be marshalled through this makeshift vaccination centre, the like of which they have heard so much about in the news.

[see also: Should Covid-19 restrictions be lifted if only the elderly are vaccinated?]

Whenever staff from our surgery are working at the hub, bemasked and scrubs-clad selfies get posted on our WhatsApp group. Those working back at the practice reply with motivational animated Gifs and ironic jokes. My colleague Stephen has evolved a wonderful patter. “Good morning!” he beams, ushering each new patient behind his screen. “Now then – we’ve got the Pfizer jab for you today.” His tone is that of a maître d’, announcing to a guest that he has a particularly fine claret that he just knows they are going to enjoy. When the national total of vaccinations is announced each day, there is a strong sense of having played one’s part.

Various fire doors are propped open for ventilation. Chairs and surfaces are wiped down between every vaccination. All professionals are undertaking twice-weekly lateral flow tests, but these tests are far from infallible. One pharmacist came down with Covid the day after her first shift, and was probably the source for a GP and a nurse who developed symptoms the following week. As far as we know, no patient contracted Covid, but it illustrates how difficult it is entirely to prevent transmission of this highly infectious virus.

None of us have been thanked so often and so fulsomely. Among my many memories of the pandemic will be the sight of these dignified processions of elderly patients – some walking sprightly, some shuffling with frames – making their way round the hall to receive the vaccine. They must be all too aware of the strand of opinion that bemoans what society has borne in order to protect them. The vaccine offers the chance to leave such commentary behind. They have survived a year of Covid – unlike the 110,000 who have, to date, succumbed.

[see also: Which European countries are vaccinating their populations fastest?]

This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair