It was just before Christmas when our GP practice started vaccinating patients against COVID-19.
I remember it was a week after Margaret Keenan – the first person vaccinated outside a clinical trial – received hers.
As GPs, we had seen the devastating effect COVID-19 was having on our practice population, on our communities, and on our nation as a whole. So as soon as the vaccine was available, and deemed to be safe and effective, we wanted to give it to our patients as soon as possible.
I’m not sure we dared to think back then – just a few short months ago – that we would have reached such a significant milestone so quickly, but we have. Across the UK, more than half of the adult population has already received at least one dose of a vaccine. Every day, tens of thousands are added to that number, and we are making progress on second doses too.
Like many others around the country, our GP practice in Leeds has been working with other practices in our primary care network to deliver the vaccination programme locally. Ever since we started, we’ve been vaccinating people come rain or shine. Even when snowstorms tried to put a spoke in the wheel, armies of volunteers rallied with shovels, clearing snow in car parks and enabling people to get to their appointments.
We’ve been vaccinating people come rain or shineDr Vautrey
The whole community came together, recognising this was the beginning of us moving towards something resembling normal life once again.
As a GP, it’s been humbling to be involved – to be a small part of something so big, so important, so vital. But I think we have to recognise it has been and continues to be a big team effort. It starts with the practice admin staff inviting people to attend an appointment – anyone with a spare minute has been ringing people up and asking them to come in – and we’ve all been working together to ensure that everything is in place to deliver the vaccination programme.
There have been challenges: for example, we were using the Pfizer vaccine which requires careful handling after it has been defrosted and transferred to practice sites, and then you’re having to deliver a thousand vaccines at a time because that’s the size the package comes in.
You are also doing all this at the same time as delivering routine care to patients. There were phenomenal efforts from practice admin staff, practice nurses, pharmacists, volunteers – a whole range of people.
We have been fortunate to have had a number of doctors and other clinicians who have come back to work to support the vaccination programme, which has been really helpful and we can’t thank them enough.
GPs are incredibly adaptive, flexible and responsive to new situationsDr Vautrey
The feedback from patients has been amazing. By the nature of the vaccination clinic, these are brief contacts with people, and we actually need to minimise the contact to protect them. But this was face-to-face encounters with hundreds of people.
At the beginning, with people in their 80s and 90s, we were seeing patients who had perhaps been shielding; it was the first time they had been out of the house in months, and they were so pleased to start on that journey towards protection.
This positive feedback continues. One of the biggest challenges has been unpredictability of vaccine supply. That’s understandable, because we have to ensure that all patients, across the UK, get equal opportunity to access the vaccine, but it has meant, at a local level, very little notice of the arrival of large amounts of vaccine.
That then puts pressure on the practice team to get on the phones and try to book people to come into a clinic – and we’ve been doing 2,000 in a session sometimes. Patients have been very understanding and so pleased to get the call.
Looking at the vaccine roll-out, I think it demonstrates the value of general practice. GPs, by the very nature of their contractual arrangements, are incredibly adaptive, flexible and responsive to new situations. They understand their patients and their communities. If you give them the necessary resources and the flexibility to get on with it, that’s what we will do. And that is exactly what has happened.
It is why the vaccine programme has been so successful in the UK because we’ve had a solid foundation of general practice, based in the community, to be able to deliver it. In England, we’ve delivered about three quarters of vaccines through that route, so I think one of the big lessons here is the real strength of our model of general practice.
Richard Vautrey is chair of the BMA GPs committee