BLOG: As the Covid-19 vaccine rollout gets under way – “Now the hard work really begins”

Dr Jackie Bene is Chief Officer of the Cheshire and Merseyside Health and Care Partnership and in charge of the rollout of the new Covid-19 vaccine across Cheshire and Merseyside.

Earlier this month we learned that the UK had become the first country in the world to approve a Covid-19 vaccine and we are now seeing it being rolled out.

The global health emergency means finding a vaccine has been the sole focus of pharmaceutical firms and regulators such as the MHRA, enabling them to find volunteers, scale up the trials and evaluate the results in record time. Data from the trials was shared with regulators in real time as it was taking place, rather than waiting until the end, meaning they were able to make a head start in assessing its effectiveness and safety.

This is a hugely exciting and game changing moment in our battle against a virus which has so far cost over 60,000 lives in the UK, left thousands more with long-term debilitating effects and caused huge damage to our communities and the economy.

It is now, however, that the hard work really begins: starting the process of vaccinating the population.

Vaccines are one of the most efficient ways of saving lives and keeping people healthy and the good news is, we have an excellent track record.

Immunisation is one of the biggest health successes of the last century. You have to be of a certain age to remember diseases such as whooping cough and measles as a potentially dangerous rite of passage during childhood. Nowadays, the vast majority of parents get their children immunised as a matter of routine, which has put paid to the risk of these illnesses.

At the other end of the age spectrum, the flu jab has proved effective at protecting older people and those with underlying health conditions, preventing many hospital admissions and deaths. Our success with mass flu vaccination bodes well for getting Covid-19 under control.

But we have never, ever attempted anything as complex and challenging as this.

Here are just three of the issues that my colleagues in the NHS and local authorities are grappling with at the moment:

1: How do we ensure that those most at-risk of death from COVID-19 get vaccinated the quickest? It is sensible that the oldest and most vulnerable in society should be first in the queue. We are targeting the over 80s first. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has also put patient-facing health and social care staff into a priority group because of their heightened risk of exposure to the virus. Healthcare workers are not the top priority and with limited vaccine, we will offer the vaccine to the most at-risk healthcare workers first. Subsequent phases will target priority groups according to the advice from the JCVI, this is primarily based on age given the risk of dying from COVID-19 increases with age. Importantly, it will be a case of waiting to be contacted by your GP or health professional who will let you know when you are eligible.

2: Take-up. Getting the Covid vaccine won’t be compulsory and there will be many people who will have reservations about having it, so we will need to outline very clearly the benefits and reassure people that the vaccine is effective and safe. Older people and those who have been shielding will be understandably concerned about leaving the house to get the vaccine at a public venue. The vaccination is only as good as the proportion of the population who get it. So, we need to be clear that the more people who get the jab, and the quicker they do so, the faster life will return to normal for everyone.

3: Anti-vaxxers. When the smallpox vaccine was invented by Edward Jenner in the 1800s, a group of people objected because they felt it violated their liberties. From this the anti-vaccination lobby was born and still lives on today (unlike smallpox, which was eventually eradicated by the vaccine). Misinformation about vaccines is nothing new, but social media and the internet allows it to spread like wildfire and we need to make sure myths are busted and falsehoods corrected.

If I could ask people to bear three things in mind about the rollout, they would be:

  • Be patient – you will not be able to get the vaccine on demand and may not get the vaccine as quickly as you would like
  • Older and more vulnerable people will be prioritised over those who are younger and healthier
  • Social distancing and face coverings will be a way of life for a while yet – Hands, face, space, safe

History shows vaccines are the key to helping the human race tackle dangerous viruses – so 2021 promises to be a much brighter year for us all. This is the first step towards life returning to ‘normal’ but it’s really important we remain vigilant, don’t get complacent and continue to follow COVID-19 advice – this will save lives #LetsGetVaccinated

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