On December 8 2020, 90-year-old grandmother Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine following its clinical approval.
The history-making jab was administered by May Parsons, a Filipino nurse who worked at Keenan’s local hospital in Coventry, and marked the beginning of the UK’s nationwide programme.
One year later, more than 51 million first doses of the vaccine have been given in the UK, along with more than 46 million second doses and 20 million extra doses.
“Looking back to a year ago, I am extremely proud of how the brilliant people that makes up the NHS – with our own challenges and difficulties coping with caring for our Covid and non-covid patients – still managed to achieve such an incredible feat,” Parsons tells HuffPost UK. “There’s still more to do and I’d like to encourage everyone to come for their NHS Covid-19 vaccinations, first, second and booster doses to protect themselves and their loved ones.”
The monumental effort has been thanks to 92,000 NHS staff, like Parsons, who’ve administered jabs alongside their regular roles.
But the rollout wouldn’t have been possible without the additional work of 118,000 volunteers, who have given up more than 1.9 million hours of their time to help protect their communities.
And to mark the anniversary, we want to celebrate every single one of them – and hear more about what it’s been like to volunteer.
Sarah Johnson, a 48-year-old who works in educational publishing, decided to sign up as a volunteer in March of this year, after several family members and colleagues were affected by the virus.
“I felt like I needed to do something rather than sit at home and doom-scroll,” she says.
Johnson volunteers at the vaccine centre in Maidenhead on Sundays, arriving at 7.45am for an 8am kickoff. The team will have a quick briefing where important issues – such as the day’s cake and biscuit options – are discussed. They’ll then assign tasks.
The role of a volunteer is varied, says Johnson, and that’s part of the joy. “I’ll do everything and anything from checking in patients on the numerous NHS systems, I check dates, make small talk to anxious patients, assist people who can’t walk, check on people post vaccine, I’ll pour waters, fold leaflets; clean chairs, wipe desks, wipe more stuff, help people with the app, gel hands and the big prize… hand out stickers. You’ll be surprised how many grown men do love a sticker,” she says.
Being told “thank you” by members of the public as they leave is enough repayment, says Johnson.
Her favourite part of volunteering is watching how the centre changes as different generations become eligible, “from elderly folk taking it without a flinch to teens getting an Insta story”.
“I witnessed a teen play off his parents in a two-hour stand off and get a PlayStation out of it, which was something,” she recalls.
There’s been touching moments, too, such as the time she spent with a woman who was crying because she had just lost her husband. And some rather unforgettable ones, too, like when she helped an old chap with the app and discovered porn on his phone.
Volunteering isn’t always smooth-sailing though, and on a particularly challenging day, Johnson was faced with an anti-vaxxer who came in shouting “You’re all going to die!” at the team. As she puts it: “We haven’t.” But overall, donning the high-vis every week has been a rewarding experience.
Stephanie Bosset, a 41-year-old freelance broadcast journalist, shares her passion for volunteering. She began volunteering as a steward at Downham Health Centre in south-east London in March, then qualified as a vaccinator. “I wanted to do as much as possible to help the vaccinating efforts,” she says.
Bosset’s voluntary role now involves administering all of the Covid-19 vaccines as well as flu vaccines. She says there are too many good memories to count.
“It’s wonderful to be part of a group of people who are determined to help their community and it is amazing to be able to meet and chat to hundreds of people coming in to get their jabs,” she says. “And it’s always satisfying when someone comes in, scared of needles and very nervous, then leaving with a smile on their face and relieved at being vaccinated.”
For Alice-May Purkiss, a 33-year-old freelance creative, volunteering earlier in the pandemic meant looking after people who’d been alone for months.
“In the early clinics, some of these people hadn’t seen anyone for months as they were elderly and had been shielding, so for me, it was just about being a smiley face to let them know they were in good hands, they’d be seen as soon as possible and we would take good care of them,” says Purkiss, who volunteered at a centre in south London.
She was inspired to sign up as a volunteer because she’d witnessed first-hand the huge effort that went into setting up the clinics. Her husband is a practice manager of a GP’s surgery, and he’d been working seven days a week to help get the programme off the ground in their borough.
“I knew what a monumental effort it had taken to pull together the clinics,” she says, “and I’m a freelancer, so it was really the least I could do to give up a couple of Saturdays or Sundays to head out and give up a few hours of my time to help.”
Volunteering at the vaccine centre had the added bonus of boosting her own wellbeing – a sentiment shared by several of the volunteers.
“On most days I was at the clinic, there was a really jovial feeling, like we were turning a corner and seeing a change,” she says. “It just felt so optimistic – maybe slightly cautiously – for the both those being vaccinated and the staff.”
The vaccine programme has also been supported by former NHS staff coming out of retirement to help, and Janet Price, a former NHS physiotherapist, was happy to do so.
“I felt strongly that vaccination was the way to go,” she says. “Having retired from active service in the NHS partly due to physical limitations, so not able to return to the front line on wards, this was something that I could do to help in the situation.”
Price, who’s in her sixties and volunteered at the Taunton Racecourse vaccination centre in Somerset, describes her contribution to the programme as “the single proudest thing I’ve been involved [in] within my lifetime”.
“I have made new friends hopefully for life from some of the other volunteers,” she says. “I also think the scientists who have enabled the vaccine production deserve far more acclaim.”
In a bid to tackle the Omicron variant, the NHS is ramping up its vaccine drive once again, with accelerated booster jabs – and it needs paid staff and volunteers to help.
Some 10,000 new roles are being advertised, including vaccinators, admin staff and healthcare support workers.
Meanwhile the Royal Voluntary Service and St John is working to drum up the support of more than 42,000 volunteers. If you feel inspired to get involved, search ‘NHS vaccine team’ to find out about opportunities near you.
But for now, let’s raise a toast to the people who’ve helped us so far – we owe them a lot.