We can do this. Not a mantra, or a hope, but a reality and a huge relief. With 6% of the population inoculated so far, and an ambitious target of 13 million people by mid-February, Britain’s vaccination programme is working. In hospitals, pharmacies, GP practices and vaccination centres, using a nationwide queueing system that puts the eldest and most vulnerable at the front, people are being protected against the virus.
More than half of the over-80s have had at least one dose of either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, as have healthcare workers and care home staff and residents. People deemed clinically extremely vulnerable and the over-70s are next. The UK has vaccinated almost 4.1 million people, with around 62 million to go, and is ahead of every country except Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
This is not a call for complacency. The UK’s death rate from coronavirus is a disaster. The situation in hospitals and care homes remains dire. With more than 90,000 deaths and almost 38,000 Covid patients in hospital, hundreds of thousands of people are either mourning family members or desperately worried about them. Nor is the vaccine rollout problem-free, with questions being asked about the slower start in Wales and Scotland. In England, too, the situation is subject to local variations, with concerns about the over-80s in some areas who have not yet had appointments. And there are worries about vaccine scepticism, with experts calling for a focus on minority ethnic groups, who, research suggests, may need additional reassurance.
We do not yet know whether vaccinated people can transmit the virus. A reckoning is due with “lockdown sceptics” in politics and the media, who fomented public distrust of official advice and encouraged dangerous risk-taking. Looking beyond the UK, the lack of vaccines for low-income countries is a serious problem with long-term consequences. On Monday, the World Health Organization warned of a “catastrophic moral failure” if rich countries continue to hoard supplies and undermine Covax, the international vaccine-sharing fund, by prioritising their own deals with manufacturers.
These are more than caveats. The widening by the pandemic of inequalities both within and between countries is a cruel and ugly business. In the UK this week, there were worrying reports about the extent of unhappiness among young people, the harmful impact of nursery closures and the grim threat hanging over families who are reliant on the £20 added to universal credit last year, which the government is now threatening to take away.
But in the midst of so much gloom and anger, it should still be possible to praise the achievement of all those who have worked on the vaccine rollout. Somehow, with intensive care wards full to bursting and staff illness rates higher than usual, the NHS and its voluntary sector partners managed to find the resources needed to give more than 1.3 million people an injection last week. Ten new centres, including at Taunton racecourse and Blackburn Cathedral, are open. There is an end to this disease-ridden tunnel, and the more we support each other as we go through it, both in our private networks and publicly, as a society, the easier it will be to find the light on the other side.