Soothing as a gentle organ accompaniment would undoubtedly be, one does not need the sanctified Gothic surroundings of Salisbury or Lichfield Cathedrals to benefit from the efficiency of the NHS’s roll-out of its mass Covid vaccination programme. The Park and Ride car-park alongside Tesco at Askham Bar on the outskirts of York is more than good enough for me. I wasn’t about to allow mere aesthetics to deter me when I received a text message on Friday inviting me to book an appointment for a vaccination.
Face-mask, passport for photo-identity, and booking reference (neither of which last two was actually needed) carefully assembled, we drove out to the vaccination-centre in good time for my appointment at 3.45, and by 4.05 were on our way home again. And the twenty-five or so minutes we spent there included a compulsory 15-minute wait on one of the serried ranks of socially distanced chairs at the exit end of the marquee to make sure there weren’t any dramatic adverse reactions: one wasn’t allowed to leave until the release time stipulated on the vaccination card had expired. The efficiency of the process was made possible by literally dozens of volunteers: I counted six men in bright orange overalls directing the traffic; several others had the job of meeting the cars and escorting people to the marquee; then there were the receptionists signing us in, the stewards guiding us to one of the ten vaccination booths, and two people responsible for the vaccination itself in each booth; and, finally, a group of volunteers keeping watch on those waiting to be released and checking the vaccination cards as we left. Everyone we engaged with epitomized the ‘care’ in healthcare.
I had been wondering idly whether it would be the Pfizer or the Astra-Zeneca version of the vaccine that was being rolled out in York, not that I minded either way, but I didn’t need to ask the question. Having been directed to one of the five booths on the right hand side of the marquee, I was asked a few routine health questions, one of which was whether I had any allergies. When I mentioned that some 25 years ago I had experienced an episode of anaphylactic shock as a result of an allergy to an antibiotic, the vaccinator’s assistant immediately scurried off to find a supervisor who came over and ushered me into a booth on the other side of the marquee. The answer to the question I hadn’t had the chance to ask was ‘both’. The booth I had originally been shown to was using the Pfizer vaccine, the one on the other side was using the Astra-Zeneca one. I was left to conclude that the Astra-Zeneca version is the less allergenic of the two.
Welcome as soothing organ music might have been as an add-on, it was the efficiency of the whole process and my gratitude to the scientists and volunteers responsible for my passport to what might with luck turn out to be a relatively normal future, that achieved the necessary soothing. And some soothing was necessary. When I heard about the mass vaccination centres being set up, my immediate response was to wonder whether it might conceivably be possible that our third-team government had learnt any lessons from the crashing and burning of its much vaunted world-beating Test and Trace system, now sunk (at least from the media) without trace. So when I saw that the text message inviting me to book my appointment via an electronic booking form carried the logo of our GP practice I was reassured that there wouldn’t be the same communication problem as there still is between then centralized and community testing processes. Wrong again. The booking form was the Hannibal Lecter of user-unfriendly booking forms. I’m nobody’s idea of an IT expert but I can manage any half-intelligently put-together electronic booking form. After struggling with this one for literally 90 minutes, I eventually got through to the climactic point when it told me that my GP practice, the one whose logo headed the form, isn’t taking part in the mass vaccination process.
I phoned our GP practice at 4.30 and eventually spoke to a harried receptionist at 5.30, well after she was supposed to have gone home for the weekend. She told me that a phone queue with 11 people waiting to speak to the practice had leapt up to 77 people during the afternoon as people received the offending text message. She offered to book me an appointment the next day but warned that it would take her ten minutes to do so, as it duly did. She had no idea when she would get home that evening and isn’t paid for any overtime. I couldn’t bear to ask her how many people were still in the queue waiting to speak to her. When we eventually emerge from the current crisis, as we surely will, it will be on the backs of the innumerable receptionists, volunteers, doctors, nurses, scientists and other key workers who have managed to carry those of us who are left through to the other side, in spite of the venal incompetence of those who are supposed to be in charge.