Getting the Early Bird Jab

18 December 2020

It was the oldest queue I’d ever seen. It made the queue outside the Wigmore Hall look like a youth club.

We walked the seven kilometres to the vaccine distribution centre faster than we’d estimated and arrived 45 minutes before the appointment. Many of those in the queue outside the old brick building were not so fortunate – halt and lame and accompanied by carers. Many were delivered by motor car, so there was a parking problem. There were only a couple of chairs and no one stood outside to supervise the queue. But it was unseasonably warm, it wasn’t raining and no one complained. No black or brown faces; this facility is for people who can afford to live in central London.

It took 45 minutes to reach the entrance, so I was bang on time. However, the appointment slot didn’t matter; it seemed to be just a way of staggering arrivals From that point, everything worked a treat. A cheerful young woman (well, everyone still working is young from my perspective) apologised for the wait, checked me on her clipboard, applied a ray-gun to my forehead to take my temperature, admitted me to a passageway tiled with handsome green Victorian tiles, and invited me to dip into a tin of Quality Street wrapped chocolates stationed by the door to the premises.

After a short wait vaccinees were admitted in groups of five – there are five shots in each vaccine phial – and quickly distributed to different small consulting rooms. A nurse quickly ticked off the boxes: name, d.o.b., consent (no discussion –  in practice assumed, I think, because you turned up) and allergy history. Mine was irrelevant – all they are concerned about is anaphylaxis (severe and life-threatening allergic response, generally of very rapid onset). Nor did they ask about my Warfarin level.

It was the first day of general distribution of the vaccine.

The longest procedure was shucking winter clothing, then a quick jab slipped in with no wait, no fuss, no plaster. I was given a card with details of the vaccine batch and the date of my second jab. In and out in five minutes. Corners were found for people to wait for fifteen minutes after vaccination. And they remembered to come around and tell you it was safe to leave.

It was the first day of general distribution, apart from hospitals and care homes. The staff of this medical centre, a typical Victorian rabbit warren, had been augmented by NHS staff, including administrators, recruited from other facilities. They started at 08.00 this morning and the last jab was scheduled for 18.00. They are all working over the weekend.

Shepherding dozens of geriatrics, some very fragile and deaf, and their many carers and companions through narrow corridors where it is impossible to arrange a one-way flow was managed as well as it could be. Loos might pose a problem. But the process was shaking down well on the first morning. I have no doubt that by now they have found some weather-resistant chairs for the oldies outside and posted someone to keep them informed. All the staff were charming, chatty and efficient. Will they keep smiling over the weeks and months stretching ahead?

We wondered why a site more congenial to mass vaccination had not been selected. A rumour ran through the queue that Lords cricket ground had been considered, and why not – all that covered seating. And what about Westminster Cathedral, close by, someone suggested.

Afterwards we went up Primrose Hill. The crowd here averaged about twenty years old. The few who wore masks were mostly Oriental.


6 January 2021

I had been given an appointment to have a second jab in three weeks’ time. Because that was how the effect of the vaccination had been tested. Ten days before that appointment the government made another U-turn. It decided it was wiser to defer the second jab for 12 weeks, so that more people could be immunised more quickly. Seems responsible. Except that the manufacturer, Pfizer, had no idea how that longer interval would affect immunity – it could possibly render the vaccination useless. There was no science to support either view, and it would be an enormous administrative task to abruptly reorganise procedures. And so the BMA, and many doctors, opposed the government’s decision.

On Monday I received an SMS reminding me of my Friday appointment. I assumed that the administrative procedures of the local health authority had not yet caught up with the U-turn of a few days ago. But it raised my hopes. If I heard nothing more I would turn up on the day brandishing this reminder, just in case. Anyway, the seven kilometre walk in the cold, fresh air is good exercise.

When I arrived at the health centre my heart sank: there was no queue at the door. But in the street there was a queue of taxis waiting with their lights on, some barricades, and several health workers wearing masks and badges. This time the process seemed almost too slick. A building across the road had been requisitioned as a registration centre. The nice lady who had wielded the temperature-taking ray gun now had at her disposal a free-standing mechanism of the type used at airport terminals. Though she missed her gun – “This doesn’t always work,” she confided. And there were a hundred chairs in the large hall now used as a sheltered waiting  room. I was told to take a seat, and had plenty of choice. I was the only one in the room. Before I could sit down I was summoned  to cross back over the road into the surgery and whisked through the process. The only discouraging aspect was that none of the staff I spoke to – doctors or helpers – had yet had the vaccine themselves, which seems an extremely foolhardy tactic. And it was strangely quiet: the staff outnumbered the vaccinees. Why?  Had people been following the government’s advice?