In spring last year Chander heard that an old friend had died from Covid. “It was so scary, a frightening time, it really affected me a lot. I wanted to do something,” she says. “I heard they wanted help at my GP. I got in touch and they said could you come in tomorrow.”
The next day – “after about 30 seconds training!” – Chander found herself on reception duty at Bounds Green group practice in north London, part of an unprecedented volunteer effort that has underpinned the Covid vaccination drive across the capital.
The surgery, in a side street across from Bounds Green Underground station, was designated a year ago as a vaccination hub for Haringey, rapidly setting up a waiting area in a marquee on the forecourt and recruiting experienced GP practice manager Caroline Eggleston to get the service underway. “I’d just stepped back from full-time practice management, wanting an easier life – it didn’t turn out like that!” said Caroline, who lives near the practice.
It was clear that mass vaccination, the “greatest logistical challenge of our time”, as ministers described it, would need more people to make it happen than the NHS and wider health services could provide. And Londoners stepped up. “I put the message out to the WhatsApp groups in the roads around where I live, and to my Pilates group,” says Caroline. “I soon had almost 600 people coming forward.”
Just before Christmas the practice administered its 100,000th vaccine. “It’s been an amazing effort from everyone involved, the clinical leads, the vaccinators, the wider Haringey GP federation,” says Caroline. “But we couldn’t have done it without the volunteers.”
Chander had always been interested in volunteering, but never had the time or the opportunity. But Covid, coming just as she had been made redundant from her public sector job, was the prompt. “I didn’t want any more people to die from Covid,” she says. The vaccine programme brought that hope. I really felt I was saving lives, one person at a time. That really motivated me.”
For fellow volunteer Ann, there was a sense too of wanting to be involved on the front line. “I didn’t feel particularly vulnerable myself so it felt right to want to help. Almost like a duty,” she says. “I like a busy life, and lockdown was hard. So volunteering felt very much like being back out there, as part of something important. And now at Bounds Green I feel I’m serving my own community, doing something for my neighbours.”
Ann’s early volunteering ranged from stints at the Science Museum, to helping a solo vaccinator at a Tottenham pharmacy managing a nervous bus-load of adults with special needs – eventually vaccinated on the bus – to marshalling hundreds queuing in the heat at the Spurs stadium, before joining her local cohort.
Whatever the setting, there was an immediate camaraderie; people from different communities and backgrounds, young and old, experienced executives and school-leavers, coming together. “I’ve worked with waiters and bar staff, a retired bank manager, furloughed air stewards, students, unemployed youngsters,” says Ann.
Volunteering isn’t easy. From managing undocumented people and dealing with language barriers – Google Translate, and three-way interpretation with a friend on the phone or small grandchildren all helping out – to sometimes aggressive demands to jump the queue, and significant nervousness too, there are daily challenges.
The volunteers benefit almost as much as those receiving the service though, by learning new skills or using abilities which got rusty during lockdown. They also gain important work experience. “It’s good for us and it’s good for the volunteers,” says Caroline.
References are provided and at Bounds Green some young people have moved into full-time work in the NHS while, for Ann, vaccine volunteering has been the gateway to a more formal trustee role at a local carers’ charity.
The big task now is to keep up momentum on the booster drive, as well as continuing to encourage unvaccinated people to come forward. Omicron is playing a part here, said Chander, who helped at London’s first 24-hour Tottenham “jab-a-thon” session just before Christmas.
“We did thousands of people, and I was blown away by how many first-timers were coming in. Omicron has put the fear into people,” she said. “There is still a lot of anxiety – one person I helped finally made it in at her third attempt – but we are not at all judgmental, just happy they are there.”
Caroline, fresh from a meeting reporting the high levels of non-vaccination among the most serious cases, made the same point, recalling the week she spent in the Whittington hospital after catching Covid herself last year. “I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through, or worse.”
With case numbers in London still high, and rising among older age groups, London public health chief Professor Kevin Fenton yesterday spelled out the continuing importance of the vaccination programme, as the “best protection against infection and severe disease”. The capital’s volunteer army, it seems, will remain on duty for some time to come.
Details of how to join the vaccine volunteer effort here.
On London is a small but influential website which strives to provide more of the kind of journalism the capital city needs. Become a supporter for £5 a month or £50 a year and receive an action-packed weekly newsletter and free entry to online events. Details here.