How to roll out a successful Vaccine Programme

Get your vaccination here! – Nik on Unsplash

Wednesday morning was sunny so I rode my bike through Sandford Park in the centre of town to Cheltenham East Fire Station. Inside, I took my shirt off, someone stuck a needle in my shoulder, I rested for 15 minutes and then I cycled home. Once there, I sat and watched England’s batting collapse in the third Test against India with a sore arm.

So, like millions of other people in the UK, I’ve had by first jab to protect against Covid symptoms. The joke is told that the main symptom you get from being jabbed is wanting to tell everybody all about it as soon you can; that’s certainly how I felt.  It’s an incredibly straightforward process, almost mundane even, if not for the emotion welling inside that nearly made me burst into tears at the thought of it. We’ve waited so long for good news, it’s hard to believe that this is really happening. But it is.

A lot of the UK’s relative vaccine success is attributable to the NHS and the army of volunteers I saw that morning. The text messages inviting you to make an appointment, the simplicity of booking one, the smooth checking in process at the vaccine centre, the skill of the NHS staff administering the vaccine, the space to sit and wait before you leave are all there based on what must have been a massive logistical effort – finding accessible buildings, organising them, staffing them, working out the order in which people are invited to book a jab and so on.

What struck me again, like every interaction I ever have with them, is how nice NHS staff are: as well as their obvious competence, they’re genuinely cheerful and put you at your ease. What was it like having a vaccine? Well, we had a good laugh at the muddle I got into when rolling up my shirt sleeve – if you haven’t been yet, when it’s your turn wear a t-shirt.

Of course, it’s not just the marvellous NHS and the volunteers. It’s also the pharma experts who developed vaccines in months rather than years, combined with a regulatory process that ran in tandem rather than sequentially.

Added to that, it’s the way the UK went about acquiring the vaccines in the first place. One of the smartest things the government did early on was to listen to the scientists for once and take up Sir Patrick Vallance’s suggestion to set up a team dedicated to vaccines. Then they appointed Kate Bingham as chair of the Vaccine Taskforce with a brief to steer the procurement of vaccines.

Boris Johnson doesn’t have the greatest track record in appointing well connected women to prominent positions. Dido Harding, had been chief executive of the TalkTalk Group at a time when a cyber-attack revealed the details of four million customers, and holds a board position at the Jockey Club. Not exactly ideal experience for a role as head of the NHS Test and Trace programme and acting chair of the National Institute for Health Protection. Her main qualifications seem to be that she is a Conservative Party member, married to Conservative Party MP and is friends with David Cameron.

By contrast, Kate Bingham is the real article.  She’s been a venture capitalist specialising in biotechnology for nearly thirty years. Venture capitalists spend their life investigating the technical and economic feasibility of new ideas and backing those that have the greatest chance of success. To do that, you have to have a detailed understanding of the sector you are investing in, a broad range of contacts and an understanding of the business development process – in this case how vaccines are developed.

I’m 58 and have no underlying health conditions. The reason I got an injection relatively early is not because I queue-jumped; it’s because the U.K. had experts with the right skills and experience at each stage of the process. This is not one particular group’s triumph alone, however much the government may claim it. Scientists gave us the vaccine taskforce structure, a mix of academia and big pharma developed vaccines at record speed, the private sector led their acquisition and the NHS is delivering them with remarkable efficiency.
Now if they can just sort out the England cricket team, I’ll be really happy.

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