Bill McCarthy has spent time as an NHS steward at a Sutton vaccination centre, he tells why he feels privileged to join the volunteer army.
‘It’s the anti-vaxxers who make life difficult for us. They often come in with their relatives who want to be vaccinated only to spread their conspiracy theory messages.’
That was the sad verdict of a vaccination centre volunteer steward, who feels vital work to combat the Covid-19 pandemic is being undermined by a selfish minority.
Volunteers have become part of the lifeblood of the country’s response to the pandemic, along with the heroic efforts of NHS staff, and spending time on the frontline with fellow volunteers is a rewarding experience and a chance to meet people from all walks of life.
The global pandemic has had a profound effect on the world with millions of deaths, leaving families bereaved, millions more infected, and tens of thousands of jobs lost.
It has also had a profound effect on people. Let’s be honest we are still in a daze as we try to take in the enormity of it all.
We have had the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme or furlough, virus mutations, hospitals at breaking point and finally riding to the rescue, a group of vaccines.
But the vaccine rollout has been a stunning success and Sutton Coldfield is an outstanding example of this. The main centre at the town hall has vaccinated thousands since it opened for that purpose back in February. There, the medics and a huge army of volunteers have carried out a slick and hugely successful programme so far.
These unsung volunteers freely give up their time to support fellow human beings in a time of crisis, sometimes in the face of disdain and often hostility.
While a small minority of people have profiteered from the crisis, this volunteer army has stepped up to the plate and shamed them with their selflessness.
Supporting hard-pressed health workers delivering the vaccine, they perform often mundane, but important tasks. This ranges from helping others with shopping, picking up prescriptions or spending hours on their feet acting as stewards, administrators, data uploads or car park attendants at vaccination centres across the country, mostly uncomplaining, accommodating and anxious to help.
I have spent some time both as a volunteer responder, and as a steward where people, mostly, are so grateful for the help and guidance you can offer them.
They are all ages, men and women, young people working in tandem with retirees, working sometimes double shifts, sometimes in wind, snow and hail and making sure people get their vaccination with the minimum of disruption.
They do it because they care and certainly not for financial reward or any plaudits they might receive.
Gratitude, unfortunately is not always so forthcoming at vaccination centres. Most people are polite as you help them through the process, but some, too many really, are downright rude and demanding.
They are also unwilling to follow the advice and can become abusive.
You also come face to face with the anti-vaxxers, so seem determined to undo the good work that is going on. Engaging them with conversation sadly seems pointless and one volunteer grimly observed: “well its their funeral.”
It is not much to ask people to take 15 minutes out of their lives to sit and wait after having the Pfizer vaccine. It is for their own good and volunteers know this, but sadly many of these people seem to think they know better than the doctors and medics. They may feel well, but if they get into a car and suffer after effects, they put other lives in danger.
It’s a difficult conundrum for volunteers. You give the advice as forcefully, but politely as you can, but if people choose to ignore it and become abusive, there is little can be done except move on to the next person.
Despite all of that there are many who appreciate the time people have given up to volunteer. Quite often you will hear the phrase, ‘thank you for what you are doing.’
That in itself offsets the negativity from the more abusive people.
It can be lonely work for the volunteers. Isolated on a parking area alone directing traffic can lead to confrontations, while shepherding people through the vaccination process also has its challenges.
My shift started at around 6.30am and five hours later ended with a sense of achievement with more than 10,000 steps recorded, ushering and organising people who had their jabs. That’s more than many of my lengthy walks in Sutton Park.
A real bonus is meeting people from all walks of life, with many interesting stories to tell. Fellow steward Jack has been volunteering for more than two months. At the age of 75 he is fit and active. So active in fact that the previous day he had completed nearly nine hours completing two shifts at the centre.
A Yorkshireman, he was previously a high-powered executive for a famous worldwide logistics company, he had spent more than a quarter of a century living in Africa and had visited every country on that continent except for Libya. He was also around in Zimbabwe and South Africa while those countries were in conflict.
He was a model of patience and helpfulness during that particular stint and made life much easier for yours truly.
There is not that much time for social chit chat during the shift, but the sense of camaraderie is intense. Madeleine was another one working alongside me. A local woman with children and grandchildren, her sparkling personality and wicked sense of humour certainly made the hours pass. She was determined not to let any negativity get to her and happy to complete any task asked of her, as did the rest of the volunteers.
Strangers become friends for a short period with simple, kind acts like making you a drink while you are shivering away in the cold or just exchanging a few friendly words of encouragement. We are all. in this together seems to be consensus.
Throughout all this the doctors, nurses and health professionals continue with their vital work of getting the nation vaccinated.
Lockdowns have left people lonely and isolated, massively disrupted family life. We are gradually coming out of it, although dangers are still starkly present, not least with Indian variant of the virus.
One thing is for certain, the contribution of these volunteers has made the country a safer place.