United Kingdom

DR ELLIE CANNON: What it's like helping Britain to jab its way to freedom

Hallelujah! In a single word, Christine, 79, summed up the mood of the nation. Considering I'd just jabbed her in the arm with a hypodermic needle, it's not the reaction I expected, but in this case it was warranted.

Because that needle delivered her first dose of the Covid vaccine, and this jab means so much to so many. Christine went on her way 15 minutes later, absolutely delighted.

I was careful to remind her that it'll take three weeks for her immune system to begin to react. But she was thrilled that after a year of almost complete isolation, one day soon she will venture out to her local bakery without worrying. 

And in the not too distant future, she may even fly to Florida for a long-awaited reunion with her two grandchildren.

Last week, like thousands of volunteer doctors across the country, I joined Britain's great vaccine drive. 

Christine was one of nearly 800 patients to come through our hub that day. Many had not left home in almost a year, and there have been many scenes like these – all just as heartwarming and unforgettable.

Last week, like thousands of volunteer doctors across the country, DR ELLIE CANNON (pictured at Belsize Priory Clinic, North London) joined Britain's great vaccine drive

I've worked at a North London GP surgery for the past 12 years, and some of the folk I've jabbed with the Covid-19 vaccine have been coming to see me since I started there. 

I've shared in their lives, from births and deaths to marriages and divorces, and of course the occasional cold or upset tummy. But this has felt truly monumental.

One of the first patients I saw on my first shift was also one of our most vulnerable – an 80-year-old with a range of complex conditions. Within minutes, she'd had her jab. For me, in that moment, it was peace of mind. 

This lovely woman, who's been under my care for almost a decade, isn't going to live for ever, but it's highly unlikely it'll be Covid that gets her. And in my book that's a win.

For her, and her son who'd come with her, it meant the shadow that had loomed over them since the start of the pandemic – that she'd catch the virus and end her life in hospital, without those she loves around her – had finally lifted.

We've been up and running – one of seven local surgeries operating from a hub at a community centre – since December 16. 

At first we had only the Pfizer jab, but in early January the Oxford AstraZeneca jab was approved. A bigger supply of vaccines means more patients can be seen every day.

I did my first shift last Saturday (we're inundated with offers to help, so I'd not been needed until then) and the atmosphere was electric. Our delivery of vaccines arrived at 6am and already the place was teeming with volunteers. 

Sam Tenenbaum (pictured with two of his five great-grandchildren), from North London, got his jab two days after he turned 101. It was, his granddaughter Alyson Martin tells DR ELLIE CANNON, a 'huge relief'

Jamie Walker, 30, from Durham, who is severely disabled and has cerebral palsy, has always feared needles, so his invitation for the Covid-19 injection sparked great trepidation

Among them were familiar faces – fellow local GPs, nurses and even a few senior consultant doctors who were lending a hand, wiping down the seats between patients, telling people where to sit and filling in vaccination cards – no job was too small.

Astonishing scenes like this are happening up and down the country. The first 24/7 vaccination hubs launched last week in hospitals, while mosques and cinemas have now been transformed into jab centres, adding to the scores of options, from High Street chemists and supermarkets to the mega-hubs in exhibition centres. 

Given the huge national push, it's no surprise more than five million jabs have now been given.

Nationally, we're up to 200 a minute. It's incredible.

Everyone seems fairly confident we'll hit the target of 15 million vaccinated by mid-February. And every single one of those people getting a dose will have a story to tell about what it means to them.

COVID FACTS 

Reports of inoculations from 16th Century China and India reveal how emperors ground down smallpox scabs and blew them into their children’s nostrils. 

Take Sam Tenenbaum, from North London, who got his jab two days after he turned 101. It was, his granddaughter Alyson Martin tells me, a 'huge relief'.

Despite his age, Sam, who ran a clothing factory before he retired, had been used to a relatively sociable life – including going out for lunch with his two children most weeks and walks around his local garden centre with the family. 

And, of course, weekends spent surrounded by his four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. But since March, the widower, who lost his wife Olga in 2013, has been stuck inside and confined to an armchair, with only his carer for company.

'He's desperate just to be able to hug his great-grandchildren,' says Alyson, 51. 'We've all been terribly careful not to be around him, because of his age. But he's become very down, watching television for hours on end every day.'

Sam tells me he was 'overwhelmed with excitement' when he got the letter inviting him for his jab. 'It brings us one step closer to being a family again,' adds Alyson. 'I've never seen him so excited.'

Ron Ayers, 82, was feeling similarly upbeat. After a year of shielding at home, a dose of the vaccine has given him hope. 'I can't wait to get back to skiing a couple of times a year and my weekly keep-fit classes,' says the former electrician, from Epsom, Surrey.

Since losing a friend – aged just 57 – to Covid, and seeing all three of their sons hit by the virus, Ron and his wife Sylvia, 75, have been afraid to leave the house. 

'When it feels like it's knocking on your door, you can't help but worry,' says Ron, who suffers from high blood pressure. 

I've worked at a North London GP surgery for the past 12 years, and some of the folk I've jabbed with the Covid-19 vaccine have been coming to see me since I started there, writes DR ELLIE

They've been having their shopping delivered by their children, and seen two of their six grandchildren for brief visits in the garden 'a handful of times'. 

But, he adds: 'It's just not the same as being able to hug and kiss them properly, or enjoy our Sunday roast dinners together like we used to.

'A few weeks back I heard someone on the radio saying 'forget your summer holidays this year' and I felt like giving up all hope.'

But then, just over a week ago, Ron got a text message from his local NHS surgery inviting him for his first vaccination. He had the jab on Monday at the Epsom racecourse mega hub.

'I got a badge to put on my jacket that tells everyone I've had my jab – and I wear it with pride. It means everything. Now I know it won't be too long until we can clink glasses with our kids to celebrate.'

Don’t be misled by Israel doubts about vaccine effectiveness 

There was more worry last week about the Government’s decision to give the second dose of the Covid vaccine after 12 weeks – nine weeks more than originally planned.

In trials, the two vaccines now in use in the UK were given as two doses, three weeks apart.

But we aren’t doing this. After the first jab, people are well protected from Covid, and delaying the second dose to three months gives more people the chance to get their first jab.

And I wholeheartedly support this move.

However, Israeli scientists have claimed that one dose of the Pfizer jab gives just 33 per cent protection, rather than the 89 per cent stated by British health chiefs.

First, let me say that we are not binning the second dose altogether – it is only a couple of months away.

And second, the Israeli data is to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Yes, people tested positive for the virus within two weeks of having one jab. But in clinical trials it took three weeks (21 days) for the immune system to mount a response to the vaccine and offer protection. 

And, at this stage, it’s believed to be up to 90 per cent effective. The second dose boosts immunity to 95 per cent.

In the Israeli data, even at two weeks there was a 33 per cent protection – and experts have admitted this is, in fact, quite impressive. However, the data does not tell us how ill the people who did test positive were. That really is crucial.

I’d say, right now, the weight of evidence is that one jab as soon as possible, then a booster three months later, is the best option for us, individually, but also for Britain as a whole.

Meanwhile Jamie Walker, 30, from Durham, who is severely disabled and has cerebral palsy, has always feared needles, so his invitation for the Covid-19 injection sparked great trepidation. 

But, at the last minute, his grandparents, Hazel, 73 and Colin, 78, came up with a plan. Jamie's jab was scheduled a week after his grandparents had theirs, so, last Thursday, just as nurses were trying to administer Jamie's vaccine, Hazel and Colin video-called him, displaying their recently jabbed arms.

'They were waving their arms around, proving to him that they'd had it – and they were fine,' says Jamie's mother, Madeline, a 48-year-old artist. 'They told Jamie they missed him so much and assured him the jab would mean they could see him soon.'

It worked – and Jamie quickly relented and had his jab.

'Jamie has five brothers and sisters, and he misses family trips with them terribly,' says Madeline. 'Now I know, when restrictions lift, we'll be able to bring the family together again without the worry of making Jamie sick.'

Over and over I've had people tell me that the vaccine is a light at the end of the tunnel. Because that's exactly what it is. 

I know there's been a lot of sadness, with death rates continuing to climb, but this, surely, is the beginning of the end of Britain's Covid-19 pandemic.

That's why so many of us are giving up evenings and weekends to make this vaccine push happen. It means that this year we will get back to some sort of normal.

I'm aware I've said something like this before. In the summer, I wrote in these pages that I thought there would not be a second wave. 

I felt that, with a good-enough testing and tracing system, along with social distancing and other Covid-secure measures, it would mean the worst of the pandemic was behind us. Well, we all know how that turned out.

I realise now we were fighting a losing battle. Our testing programme failed. There were policy decisions that, in hindsight, were misguided. And, of course, the new mutant corona variants. This time, though, it feels different.

I'll admit the vaccine rollout is not perfect.

There are areas of the country where thousands of over-80s are still awaiting a jab, with half of care residents unvaccinated.

But for every jab that goes in an arm, another death is potentially prevented. That's why, although it came a surprise, the recent decision to delay the second dose of the jab – from three weeks to three months – was the right call.

The priority is to give as many people as possible at least some protection as quickly as we can. And while it might take a little longer in some places, everyone will get their jab.

There are other worries. A US study suggested that neither the vaccine nor previous Covid infection would protect people against catching the new South Africa corona variant.

The whole idea of mutations sounds frightening – but, in fact, it's quite expected with viruses. 'We see it with flu every year,' says Professor Julian Tang, a consultant virologist at University Hospitals Of Leicester NHS Trust. 

'While parts of the virus will change, the majority of it will stay the same, and the vaccine will still be able to tackle it at some level.'

COVID FACTS 

Yesterday, the official worldwide Covid-19 death toll passed 2.1million – but the true number, when all the data is collated, will be far higher. 

Meanwhile, studies involving blood samples from people who've been given the jab are showing that the vaccine does protect against the Kent variant, which caused UK cases to shoot up over Christmas.

And there's nothing to say we can't change the vaccine if and when we need to. It's fully expected that scientists will tweak the compounds to fight against any emerging mutations, just like they do with the flu vaccine every year.

In fact, last week Oxford's star vaccine scientist Professor Sarah Gilbert confirmed her team are 'actively working on this'. 

Pfizer has said it could have a brand new vaccine ready to go in just six weeks. And my contacts in Government tell me regulators are already making plans to fast-track approval for any new or modified jabs in the months ahead – so, hopefully, there won't be any obstacles on that front.

Aside from expressing relief, the question posed by most of my patients has been: When can they hug their grandchildren?

Much as I'd like it to be otherwise, the answer is not quite yet – but it will be soon.

The vaccines offer between 70 and 90 per cent protection against severe Covid-19, two to three weeks after just one dose. But not enough people have yet been vaccinated to allow us to throw social distancing out the window.

Infection rates are still high, so if everyone went out and started cuddling again it's highly likely many will get Covid.

And some might get very sick. That's not something we should risk yet.

And we don't yet have conclusive proof that vaccines stop transmission. It is still possible that even vaccinated people could pass on the infection to, say, a grandchild who could give it to someone else.

Protecting individuals is only one part of the power of vaccination. Much more impactful is its effect for the whole community.

Mass vaccination is the only way we'll reach the ultimate goal we're all desperate for – to touch and hug our families again.

And I do believe this is coming.

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