It was a wonderful feeling. Within seconds of being vaccinated, and after almost a year of gloom, isolation and anxiety, there was suddenly the prospect of a future free of the threat of illness. I would no longer be barred from being with friends and family, from going to theatres, restaurants and shops – the list is endless.
I was given that first jab at the beginning of January. As the earliest recipient in the street I didn’t know what to expect so watched closely. After arrival I was directed towards a seat separated from its neighbour by the obligatory two metres. I completed some preliminary questions and then it was off to a cubicle for more questions, some explanations and to sign a consent form. Now to the business: with my sleeve rolled up high it was time for the precious vaccine – Pfizer batch number EE8492 (see illustration) It was early days in the campaign and the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine was not yet available.
Everything about the session was uplifting. Apart from the obvious relief shown by those being inoculated, there was an excited community feeling, with everywhere warm ‘hellos’ and twinkling eyes – when masked that is all one sees of a smile. After an obligatory post-injection wait in case of a severe reaction, I pencilled in the date for my second jab which I duly received two months later on March 1 (again see illustration).
With each injection it was difficult not to rejoice and to think how fortunate I had been, but lurking close by was the horrible reality of the pandemic and worse; compared to other populations the percentage of people dying in the UK was one of the highest in the world. I felt both sad and ashamed. As someone who has always loved and lauded the NHS, here was an inexcusable and scary tragedy which should never have been so extensive.
Such a heavy loss of life would not have arisen if we had faced the pandemic with an NHS that had not been neglected for ten years, if at every level hospitals were fully staffed, if the numbers of critical care beds in our hospitals were the same as in other countries of equivalent wealth, if we had armed our health care workers with sufficient personal protective equipment, and if there had been adequate support to protect older people in care homes. And all this was predictable.
Worse still, these deficiencies were compounded by a government that refused to involve community services and public health systems for ‘test, track and trace’, preferring instead to run a system staffed by cronies with little or no relevant experience. Moreover, our response was led by a Prime Minister who dithered, who repeatedly refused to take seriously the advice given by some outstanding scientific and medical leaders, and who, when questioned, was prone to huff, bluff and distort.
Yes, the coronavirus is vicious, but with better planning the number of people dying in the UK could have been halved so bringing the figure in line with that seen in Germany. Our failure leaves the bitterest of tastes.
In all this gloom the manufacture and provision of vaccines has been a sweet tonic. Moreover, the UK has been instrumental in helping vaccine development and its worldwide distribution. In March last year the WHO declared the onset of a pandemic; by April we had established an extraordinarily farsighted Vaccine Taskforce all of whose goals have been met. Amongst its many achievements was the financial and technical support given to Oxford University, and later AstraZeneca which helped produce a vaccine that would be available in the UK and abroad at a low price with features that allowed it to be delivered and stored without expensive refrigeration. In the same vein, through careful negotiation, the UK quickly secured from AstraZeneca and other manufacturers the guaranteed and early delivery of vaccines for patients in the UK.
In general, much scientific advice to government on how best to deal with the pandemic has been ignored. In this instance, however, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Valance * who conceived and established the Taskforce, has been allowed to work unfettered. For this exception we should be very grateful.
Our gratitude should also go to Nadhim Zahawi, Minister for Covid Vaccine Development. By taking advantage of the expertise of the NHS and local councils, he has masterminded a most effective vaccination campaign across the UK using an approach that earlier would have been unthinkable.
How we have responded to the Coronavirus has been a bitter- sweet affair, in which it is tempting to feel that the tragedy of over 125,000 deaths is to an extent offset by the arrival of effective vaccines. But, of course, balancing the two is impossibly difficult.
For help with writing this blog I would like to thank Al, Rohan and Vivien.
The illustration is a photo of my vaccine certificate together with the syringe, needle and vaccine phial used for my second dose.
* I should declare a conflict of interest – I have known Sir Patrick well for many years.