Meet the army of vaccine volunteers signing up to battle Covid

As Britain prepares for a mass vaccination, Joe Shute talks to the first of 30,000 trainees joining the fight

Health Secretary Matt Hancock is hopeful the roll-out could begin in December
Health Secretary Matt Hancock is hopeful the roll-out could begin in December Credit: E+/zoranm

To apply a Winston Churchill quote to the current enemy in our midst: we shall fight it on the beaches, in the fields, on the streets, and in the Brunel business park on the outskirts of Newark. 

Some of the first volunteers in a nationwide mobilisation the likes of which have not been seen in peacetime, gathered here to undergo training to administer the Covid-19 vaccine. Amid the corrugated steel warehouses and the distant drone of the A1, the fightback is truly beginning.

The impending arrival of the first vaccines has meant this was the week when Britain’s plans to deliver them across the population went into overdrive. On Friday evening, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the roll-out could begin next month and tasked the NHS to be “ready to deploy at the speed at which the vaccine can be produced”.

The preparations include every major city getting a dedicated mass vaccination centre, while a further 1,000 smaller Covid immunisation sites will be dotted across England. It is thought sports venues, civic buildings and Nightingale Hospitals could all rapidly be repurposed for administering vaccines. 

The first in line is expected to be the Pfizer vaccine – its manufacturers applied for emergency approval on Friday, while the UK Government has formally tasked its independent regulator to assess its suitability. It is hoped a roll-out can commence within weeks.

But success will also depend on tens of thousands of volunteers. NHS England is due to launch a recruitment drive focusing on retired doctors and nurses, while their numbers will be bolstered by others with first aid skills such as firefighters, PCSOs and members of the Armed Forces.

St John Ambulance, which has worked alongside the NHS on the front line throughout the pandemic, is also being called upon to find an extra 30,000 volunteers to bolster the vaccine programme. 

Its new recruits are being drawn from all walks of life: redundant air crews, teachers, builders, lawyers and retirees. Among the volunteers undergoing training in Newark yesterday was Richard Harper, a former teaching assistant who is about to take up a new job in finance. 

The 24-year-old, who lives near Mansfield and has volunteered with St John Ambulance for the past few years, admits that despite his first aid skills, he has never administered an injection before and he is “slightly nervous” at the prospect. But he has had personal experience of Covid – a couple of people he knows have been hospitalised – and is determined to do his bit. 

“This is going to be a massive challenge but one we are up to,” he says.

And a challenge it will be. Britain has ordered 40 million vials of the Pfizer vaccine, five million of which should be delivered by Christmas, as well as 100 million vials of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. Phase two results of the Oxford vaccine were published on Thursday, showing it produced a strong immune response in adults aged in their 60s and 70s. 

Early results from the crucial phase three trials are expected within weeks and it is hoped the vaccine will then be given the go-ahead by regulators.

 The Government has also secured five million doses of Moderna, another US-manufactured vaccine which preliminary tests have shown to be the most effective so far, although they will not be available until the spring. 

RAF aircraft are on standby to help ship the Pfizer vaccine within hours of approval from its manufacturing facility in Belgium. It needs to be stored in dry ice at -75C (-103F), meaning it is impractical to deliver it to GP surgeries, and will be taken straight to the specialist vaccine delivery centres.

Dr Lynn Thomas, a consultant general physician at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth and the medical director of St John Ambulance, says they have recruited 2,500 volunteers in the past fortnight and are confident of reaching 30,000. Considering the time pressures, they are currently only recruiting among those already working within the organisation or partner charities.

According to Dr Thomas, the charity has committed to having trained volunteers in place by December 1 – if the Pfizer vaccine has not been approved by then they will assist with flu vaccines instead.

“We have never had a mass vaccination programme of this level,” she says. “To be able to vaccinate an entire population will be a challenge, but I have no doubt we will succeed.” 

The St John volunteers will be split into those who administer the vaccine, those who help explain the process, and those who assist people after they have received the jab. Volunteers for these patient-facing roles are not required to have any prior medical experience but must possess two A-levels (or equivalent), two references, agree to enhanced security checks and not be from a medium or high-risk group. 

In total, Dr Thomas says, each volunteer will receive 21 hours of training and be supervised by a healthcare professional at the vaccine centres. The volunteers will also be trained in the specific requirements of each vaccine.

One of those to offer his services is Phil Cowburn, a lecturer at Nottingham’s University of Law. The 23-year-old has previously volunteered as a first aider with St John Ambulance but has never given an injection before. 

“It is a worry but we will have all the training and support,” he says. “We will step up to this.”

Leading the St John Ambulance training in Newark are married couple Peter and Fiona Howie. The pair, both 58, work in office-based roles in the NHS. Peter, a former nurse, has worked with the charity since 1971 and is quick to dismiss any concerns that the rush to recruit will lead to lapses in safety.

“We are selecting people who have the skills and intellectual capability to do this,” he says. “Giving the vaccine is a process and it can be done very safely.” 

Part of the training will be helping to counter some of the misinformation spreading about any potential vaccines, although Peter is confident there will be a significant take-up.

“There are always some people in society with different views but the overwhelming majority will understand this is what we need to do in order to move on,” he says. “People are starting to see a real impact [from the pandemic] on physical and mental health, and their families. That is what will persuade them.”

Fiona is similarly confident. “If you have got those abilities, skills and the time to help then let’s all pull together and see what we can do to get back to where we want to be,” she urges.

Their daughter Emily, a 29-year-old paramedic, is also volunteering. She is motivated to assist in the training of volunteers having seen first hand the impact of Covid and the “devastation” it has caused in families and communities.

Plus she has an altogether more personal hope hinged on the successful distribution of a vaccine. She is due to marry her fiancé next August. 

“I’m selfishly hopeful restrictions can be lifted in time for the wedding and we can have a decent gathering,” she admits.  

Hope is what these volunteers say is inspiring them to answer the call. It is, of course, early days and a Herculean task lies ahead. But for the first time in this year-long battle there is a feeling that the tide is turning.

“The fact there are now vaccines that look like they will be effective is absolutely light at the end of the tunnel, says Dr Thomas. “It is certainly looking for the first time since March like there may be a way out of this.”