For all the UK government’s failings in handling the Covid-19 pandemic, the vaccination rollout has been a success. The NHS has administered 22 doses per 100 people, more than any other large country.
But, as with any large operation, there is always some waste. This is not the fault of vaccination staff – vaccines have a limited shelf-life, and once a vial is opened it must be used by the end of the day.
For the centres that administer hundreds of doses daily, a handful going to waste is reasonable. But from the perspective of an individual, just one dose can be the difference between staying healthy and a very nasty illness. Understandably, people in low priority groups have queued outside vaccination centres hoping for ‘leftover’ doses at the end of the day. But this has been more widely reported in places where people are willing to put themselves forward a bit, like the USA and Israel; less so among the more reticent British.
There are a few vaccination centres nearby my home in London, so I decided I’d just ask. I wore my N95 mask, spoke to staff outside the building, and only when they weren’t busy. I made every effort to be polite, emphasising that I was low priority and only looking for a dose that would otherwise be wasted. Some centres weren’t encouraging, but one said essentially that I should try on another day. I visited again when the weather was miserable – the building was visibly quiet, and I imagine people had missed appointments.
That evening, I got a dose. My main feeling was a huge amount of relief – I knew that even one dose would probably protect me from serious disease. But I also felt a certain amount of anxiety about what people would think.
“My main feeling was a huge amount of relief... But I also felt a certain amount of anxiety about what people would think.”
Perhaps paradoxically, my solution to that anxiety was putting it on Facebook. I wanted to help other people access vaccines this way, and prevent waste. I also knew I would feel more comfortable ethically if I was public rather than secretive about it.
As expected, a few of my friends expressed unease, even anger. No-one thought doses should go to waste, but some suggested I should have directed that dose to a more vulnerable person. To me, this wasn’t realistic – before actually getting it, I wasn’t sure it was even possible. I wasn’t going to ask someone to remain on standby just in case. Now, having actually done it, I can offer much more concrete information (a few friends in higher risk groups privately asked for advice after my post).
Some friends were frustrated that I had been vaccinated when more vulnerable in the UK still hadn’t. I sympathise with this frustration, but we should separate it from the impulse not to (be seen as) putting oneself forward. I think this (very British) impulse is actually partly responsible for delays. The NHS has acknowledged that some people in the highest risk groups haven’t been reached with invitations, and has now asked them to book a jab proactively. And many vaccination centres are operating well below capacity, just waiting on permission to start working down the priority groups.
“The more people we vaccinate, the more serious illness we can prevent, and the sooner we get to something like normal life.”
Our choices as individuals – mine to seek out that excess jab, the staff’s to offer it – are justified by the larger circumstances we find ourselves in. For me, as for many others, wasting a single Covid vaccine right now seems almost criminal. One GP surgery that was recently ’named and shamed’ for distributing leftover doses to healthy university staff responded with some pride that they “had wasted just one dose since 14 December”. It honestly astonished me that a young MP who received a leftover after volunteering at a vaccination centre faced criticism. Some people would honestly rather waste doses than direct them to the ‘wrong’ people.
We have a choice as a society. We can have a system where people are seen in strict order of priority but which tolerates some waste and a delay in getting everybody vaccinated; or we can err in favour of getting vaccines into arms as fast as possible. The more people we vaccinate, the more serious illness we can prevent, and the sooner we get to something like normal life.
To be clear, no system should ask vaccination staff to choose between wasting doses and giving them to low-priority groups. Instead, there should be much more aggressive efforts to run vaccine centres at full capacity and zero waste – overbooking appointments, waitlists of people to contact on the day, (socially distanced) queues outside, whatever it takes. If there’s one larger point you take from this article, I hope that is it.
As for me, low priority as I am, I believe I’m higher priority than the medical waste bin. I hope you would make the same choice for yourself.
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