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One by one, they come to be saved.
Last Saturday alone, while much of the country wondered how to fill another empty lockdown weekend, a quarter of a million people were vaccinated. Like latter-day pilgrims seeking the cure, they queued outside cathedrals, whose cavernously draughty (and easily ventilated) spaces make surprisingly good makeshift vaccination centres. They came with their sticks and Zimmer frames to cottage hospitals and hastily repurposed conference centres, met in some cases by doctors and nurses who’d finished a gruelling shift at work only to grab a syringe and join in.
Nobody who has seen the inside of a hospital lately needs telling that a jab today could mean one less patient in ICU to come. So, eminent consultants cheerfully muck in with a volunteer army tens of thousands strong, some of whom have spent their weekends training to wield the needle, while others help to keep records or gently steer people around the building. When my father got his jab, he came away amazed by the number of helpers, but also by the kindness. It’s a small thing, but the skills required to process a patient every four minutes (as the bigger hubs aim to do) without seeming brusque or rushed are extraordinary. For some older people living alone, it will be the first human touch they have felt in months of frightened isolation. Imagine what a reassuring word, or a gentle hand on the arm, might mean.
What’s happening before our eyes is an astonishing national effort, another Dunkirk of sorts. Tens of thousands of tiny boats, helmed by everyone from out-of-work actors and office workers to students and retired nurses, have answered the call for volunteers. Some will be deploying skills learned by having to inject insulin, self-administer IVF drugs, or care for a very sick child. Many will see it as a way of giving back to an NHS for which they have themselves been grateful in the past, and without which we could never have got this far now.
Public, private and voluntary sector all had a part to play in this story, collaborating not just on the Oxford vaccine (a joint venture between the NHS, the university and the drug company AstraZeneca) but on the vaccine taskforce appointed by ministers to oversee the rollout. But, above all, this is a story about never taking the miraculous gift of free universal healthcare for granted; both the ready-made infrastructure that allows something like this to be rolled out at short notice, and the ethos that comes with it. Sharp elbows won’t get you a vaccine in Britain, and nor will a fat chequebook. Instead we have a system allowing the medically vulnerable to be swiftly identified, sorted by clinical priority, and coaxed if necessary out of homes they’re scared to leave by a family doctor they trust. We have got so used to a government lurching from one Covid misjudgment to the next that we barely remember what it’s like to feel relief, let alone pride. But how else to feel about an NHS so bloodied and bowed by what has been demanded of it for nine months, yet somehow still delivering like this?
Of course, there are clouds still on the horizon. The decision to delay second doses of the jab for up to two months beyond the time stipulated in clinical trials, in order to give a first dose to as many vulnerable people as possible, was a calculated risk taken in the face of a frightening virulent second wave that the government had arguably moved too slowly to control. The last-minute change of plan has left some recipients confused and worried, despite assurances from the vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi that everyone will get a second dose in the time promised. Some of the good work being done now could be reversed if ministers lift restrictions too soon this spring, under pressure from those lockdown sceptics who have been so reliably wrong at every stage of this pandemic.
But the UK is no longer the only country considering spacing out doses, with trials for the Pfizer vaccine showing 89% protection within two weeks of a first dose against 96% after the second. For once Britain finds itself near the top not the bottom of the international pack, delivering more doses per head than anywhere bar the United Arab Emirates (which moves so fast because it’s vaccinating all comers, not prioritising those in greatest danger) and Israel (which benefits from a small, densely packed population and a universal, not-for-profit healthcare system, but hasn’t extended the programme to Palestinians living in the occupied territories). It takes a month or more for vaccinations to start translating into fewer hospital admissions, perhaps a bit longer before they start preventing deaths. But the light at the end of the tunnel is real.
Dr Nikki Kanani, the director of primary care at NHS England who is herself currently rolling up her sleeves to vaccinate care home residents, recently hung a framed Theodore Roosevelt quote on her wall. It argues that credit in life belongs not to critics arguing about how it could have gone better but to the person “who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is not effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds”. Democracy needs critics to hold power to account, and God knows there has been much to criticise in this government’s response to Covid. That reckoning must still come. But never forget the dust and sweat and blood that built this NHS, and which sustains it still.
Source: The Guardian
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