Covid vaccine reflections

21 May 2021

As the vaccination roll-out continues apace, four members supporting the programme – from Unite staff volunteering alongside their day jobs to a retiree returning to practice – reflect on their experiences so far.

An unexpected return to work

I retired from the NHS just over four years ago after a career as a nurse, health visitor, public health practitioner and clinical nurse manager. I enjoyed all of my roles to at least some degree, and liked nearly all of the people I worked with – but I have absolutely loved life in retirement. I did a modicum of bank health visiting immediately after retiring, but found that it interfered too much with my leisure activities. And then along came the first pandemic for more than 100 years.

By this time early last year, I was no longer a registered nurse or HV. My registration had lapsed at the end of January 2020 and I hadn’t been planning to renew it. But the Covid crisis prompted the government, through the NMC, to temporarily restore those nurses whose registrations had recently expired back onto the register.

Last year I volunteered to return to the NHS and underwent a rather tortuous induction process with NHS Lothian. And then, just before Christmas, the health authority emailed to ask me to support the mass vaccination programme over the first half of 2021. I agreed.

After a mostly online vaccination induction programme – which, given the speed and scale of the operation, was remarkably thorough and well delivered – I was offered a temporary part-time contract at the vaccination centre on the Musselburgh campus of Queen Margaret University, starting in early February.

The site offers a drive-through service, so I thought it might be the coldest and windiest vaccination centre in Lothian. In its first weeks of operation, it certainly was. We have vaccinated in sub-zero conditions, torrential rain and storm-force winds. But we have kept vaccinating.

Having solved some inevitable teething troubles, the centre has provided a highly organised vaccine delivery system. Its staff come from all over the NHS and further afield. They have all been fabulously helpful and kind, especially the traffic controllers, who are out in all conditions patiently guiding drivers around the site. The clinical staff have a wide range of backgrounds – from midwives to dental specialists – with some adding extra hours to their day jobs and many others, like me, coming out of retirement to ensure that the programme proceeds as smoothly as possible. Crucially, the calm, skilled and effective manager in charge of their work has earned everyone’s confidence.

I have found the experience hugely positive and rewarding so far. While I’ll be happy to return to retirement and fade into the sunset, I’m immensely proud to have been able to play a small part in this incredible effort.

John Boyce, Edinburgh

Back in uniform after 20 years

I’m employed by one of the largest health boards in the UK. As a senior nurse in health visiting during the pandemic, I was working from home providing strategic support for HV practice, education and students who’d been reassigned to work in acute Covid-facing care. I was offering both professional and emotional support for people who were really stretched and going the extra mile to help Covid patients.

In my other role as a senior shop steward, I was also meeting managers to discuss issues such as PPE provision and staffing levels while the response to the Covid crisis progressed. After I was nominated to represent staff during the vaccination planning process, I saw an opportunity to make a direct, practical contribution to the Covid response in my capacity as a registered nurse. I was joined in our immunisation bank by many of my peers and also some former colleagues who were coming out of retirement.

My motivation to get involved at the practice level was also personal: my husband needed to shield, while other close relatives, including my new grandchild, were living in the USA. My participation in the vaccination programme may in some way help us return to a more normal family life, allowing us all to see each other face to face again sooner rather than later.

First, I trained myself in the use of Pfizer’s vaccine and then AstraZeneca’s, using resources produced by NHS Education Scotland. Then, in January 2021, I started putting in 12-hour clinical shifts. It was my first time in uniform for two decades.

The clinics were well organised, helping to make each shift a joy. We initially welcomed over-65s. Many of them dressed up for the occasion, as this was an exciting outing for them, especially as we were based in a large exhibition centre. The patients saw it as a liberating experience.

While I was vaccinating people, it was a great opportunity to check in on their wellbeing and remind them about the importance of maintaining Covid-safe practices, such as social distancing and wearing masks. I was impressed that many patients had great knowledge of the vaccines on offer.

One weekend I worked on a second-vaccination clinic for the residents and staff of a large care home for military veterans. It felt amazing to help these patients, many of whom had served in the Falklands, the Gulf and even the second world war.

This has been a fulfilling experience so far. I’m so pleased to be part of the vaccination programme and I look forward to continuing my work.

Annie Hair, Senior nurse practice development at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde; chair of Unite’s Health Visitor Organising Professional Committee

Digging deep to find long-buried skills

I’m writing this account on the national day of reflection, 23 March 2021. A year ago, as the country entered its first lockdown, few of us would have foreseen that we’d still be here today, or that Covid would take more than 127,000 lives in the UK.

At the start of the pandemic, I was focused on increasing the number of nursing staff in the NHS. As a nurse myself, I felt a real urge  to volunteer my services in a frontline role. But since I have a long-term condition that puts me at increased risk from Covid-19, the offers I made were, understandably, declined.

As I have a background in public health, I was accepted to do shifts for NHS Test and Trace. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a positive experience for a number of reasons, chief among them was that my participation felt risky on a professional level.

In December 2020, I saw an appeal from a local acute trust asking registered nurses to support its vaccination programme. I expressed an interest and received a phone call from the programme’s manager, who reassured me that, as I’d been away from a patient-facing role for some time, I would be fully supported. I discussed my intentions with my consultant and was pleased when there was no objection to them.

Everything happened very quickly thereafter. On completing the helpful online training, I attended a face-to-face session. This was exciting at first, as I’d been working at home since March 2020, so had only really been out for exercise and shopping. But the theoretical element of this training terrified me. Then, during the practical section, I had to ask how to use the needle, as I hadn’t seen one like it before. As a result, I was so short on confidence that, when it was suggested that I attend a clinic as an observer, I seriously considered going home.

I’m so glad that I didn’t. One of the chief nurses looked after me well. After observing her administer a few vaccines, I was persuaded to follow suit. The first vaccination I gave was to a centenarian. It was an emotional experience, with some recipients crying with relief and gratitude. I was reassured that I hadn’t lost my skills and ended up absolutely loving it.

My work here continues. I feel honoured and humbled to be a small part of this mammoth effort to return things to some kind of normality. The system is incredibly well organised and I feel supported and valued. I am in awe of the team that manages this programme – it cannot be an easy task. It really does show the NHS at its best and clearly demonstrates that, if you want something done well, you need to ask the experts.

Jane Beach, Lead professional officer, Unite in Health

Taking the plunge after a false start

When the pandemic hit, my normal routine of travelling the country for Unite was thrown into a weird kind of turmoil. I found myself spending most of my time working at the kitchen table, getting to see my wife and children every day.

While my nursing and HV family was going through this global crisis, I wanted to play my part. I tried to head back on to the wards as a staff nurse but, with a gap of 17 years since my previous shift, I realised that, without more staff around to support my development back into practice, this ambition was a non-starter. The experience also resulted in my catching Covid-19 and spending a day in hospital as a patient.

Fast-forward to December 2020, when I volunteered to join the vaccination programme through my local hospital. I found jumping through the hoops to do all my training was relatively easy, as I’d already completed a number of modules to get on to the ward. By the end of the next month, I’d completed my first shift at the Greater Manchester mass vaccination centre on the Etihad Campus. As a healthcare registrant member of staff, I spend my shifts either consenting people for the vaccination or drawing up the doses. I prefer the latter and have been working on average three to four shifts a week alongside the day job. Just today, I drew up 352 syringes in six hours.

It’s been a real privilege to be involved in this collective national effort alongside a great team of people. There’s been a sense of irony for me that a number of my vaccination colleagues are Unite members – not because they are healthcare professionals themselves, but because they have come into this workforce from furloughed industries that the union represents. I even recognise a few volunteers from their other roles as security staff at Manchester Airport.

Over the past year I have recognised the sheer number of different ways in which I am privileged. I hope that, in doing this, I’ve been giving a little bit back.

Dave Munday, Lead professional officer, Unite in Health

Image Credit | Shutterstock

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