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“It’s been uplifting, exhausting, humbling and a privilege”: Meet some of the team behind Altrincham’s vaccination roll-out

As it races to vaccinate as many people as possible before restrictions are totally lifted on July 19th, we go behind the scenes of the incredible team at the Altrincham Health and Wellbeing Centre It’s been the most extraordinary national effort for generations, one that has turned the tide on the

Dr Sangha said it had been a “privilege and humbling” to be involved in the vaccine effort from day one

As it races to vaccinate as many people as possible before restrictions are totally lifted on July 19th, we go behind the scenes of the incredible team at the Altrincham Health and Wellbeing Centre

It’s been the most extraordinary national effort for generations, one that has turned the tide on the greatest public crisis in a century.

Much of the roll-out locally has been coordinated from the newly built Altrincham Health and Wellbeing Centre in the town centre, where thousands upon thousands have received the jab that in many cases has been the key to their freedom.

We’ve spoken to Dr Maz Sangha, Clinical Director of the Altrincham Healthcare Alliance PCN, to get some insight into the collective and individual endeavour required, and we’ve also spoken to some of the team that has made it all happen.

A patient being temperature-checked on arrival at the centre

ALTRINCHAM TODAY: How would you describe the last few months of the vaccination roll-out?

DR MAZ SANGHA: It’s been ground-breaking, rewarding, uplifting, emotional, exhausting, humbling and a privilege.

It’s been the highlight of my career as a GP: an opportunity to have the biggest single impact on the health of our patients.

All five practices in our PCN have been committed from day one to ensuring our patients receive the Covid vaccines. And, almost six months on from vaccinating the first person in Trafford, we’re continuing to deliver the service.

It’s a true team effort which has brought us even closer. The patients have been wonderful: we’ve been overwhelmed by the support and kindness – from brilliant baking, to heartfelt letters and emails describing their experiences in lockdown and how the vaccine has given them hope…

Some of the clinical staff at Altrincham Health and Wellbeing Centre

AT: What’s a typical day for you when it’s been a vaccination day?

MS: This is just a snapshot, but it’s normally a 12-hour day from 7am to 7pm if we’ve a full day clinic and are vaccinating around 1,000 patients as we need to prepare before and after the 8.30-6.30 clinic.

Each clinic can involve 12 clinicians, 12 admin staff, three pharmacists mixing the vaccines, and volunteers supporting with marshalling. We run the clinics with staff/volunteers working across five-hour ‘shifts’ – 8.30am-1.30pm and 1.30-6.30pm. Our admin staff include front temperature desk check-in (two people), four people manning laptops to upload further details, five people at key ‘corners’ guiding the patients through their journey, and one person, supported by teams from St John Ambulance and/or the British Red Cross (who are also available to take people to/from their vaccine as required) to support social distancing, those needing wheelchairs and manning waiting areas.

There’s a myriad of tasks prepared ‘behind the scenes’ by the teams for each clinic including print-outs of patient lists for check-in, front desk temperature checks, ensuring the waiting areas are socially distanced, and much more. We also contact patients and answer queries via phone, text, email and letter.

Reception staff at the centre

AT: It seems to have run smoothly from the outside but what’s been the reality in terms of supply and the operational side?

MS: The inconsistency of supply has been the biggest frustration from the start. There’s always been uncertainty of who many vaccines we’ll get, and when.

It’s been challenging, especially trying to manage peoples’ expectations, as obviously patients are keen to be vaccinated. We’re at the mercy of the suppliers.

However, the recent advice from the EMA that the Pfizer vaccine can be stored at fridge temperature for much longer than previously recommended will help: the increased flexibility in the storage and handling of the vaccine will benefit the planning and logistics.

A vial is prepared

AT: You’ve been in charge but it seems to have been an incredible team effort – give us a bit of insight into the team involved

MS: This couldn’t happen without such enthusiasm, dedication and hard work of so many. It’s overwhelming. We’ve a 70+-strong team of clinicians, managers, admin staff and regular volunteers (including the British Red Cross and St John Ambulance).

The clinical team which vaccinates includes GPs and nurses across our five practices, plus so many who’ve stepped forward to support the vaccination roll-out – nurses from across Manchester, hospital anaesthetists, breast surgeons, ICU consultants, physios, clinical pharmacists, dentists…

Plus there’s support from students returning from university and those locally in Years 11 and 12 who’ve had studies impacted by the pandemic and are keen to help in this historic programme alongside other volunteers who give their time so generously. This truly is a team effort. Anyone involved in the vaccination service has found it such a rewarding experience: there’s real camaraderie and friendships across the team.

A member of the vaccination team

AT: Do any particular vaccinations stand out in terms of the reaction you’ve had or the story behind the person involved?

MS: Everyone has a personal story. Many have said it’s a ‘light at the end of a very dark tunnel’ and after months of isolation, there’s the hope of meeting family and friends again. Older patients described months of loneliness, the impact of shielding and desperation to be reunited with families and friends.

Some described losing loved ones and being unable to mourn with their families. One lady arrived at the front desk in tears explaining that her sister had died only an hour earlier but the lady was determined to ‘embrace the life my sister’s missing’.

Our team has laughed and cried with our patients: birthdays and anniversaries have been celebrated with a Covid vaccination, while another patient told of being diagnosed with cancer at the start of the pandemic, undergoing chemotherapy and surgery, and she’s now in remission.

Last week a patient arrived for her vaccination and burst into tears afterwards explaining that she had lost her father to Covid in the past few months. She said she was so grateful to have been given the chance of protection and, having seen the brutality of the virus, urged everyone to have the vaccine when offered.

We’ve had those who are needle-phobic and nervous, but our wonderful staff have accompanied patients through the process, sat and reassured others, taken time to listen to concerns… as I said every story is different and it’s an honour being part of it.

Patients await their turn in the waiting area

AT: In retrospect, do you consider it good timing that the health centre was available to use and that you had moved in there not long before the pandemic?

MS: Absolutely. The building has really come into its own and we have the space needed for such an undertaking. It would simply not have been possible in the old St Johns Medical Centre.

AT: How would you sum up this chapter of your career, for you and the whole team?

MS: Helping to deliver this service is the highlight of my career. I think we all feel humbled and honoured to make such an impact on people’s lives.

“I feel very privileged to be part of this team”: Staff and volunteers reflect on their experience

Volunteer Martin Connolly

Martin Connolly, Volunteer

“One young carer was so thrilled to have been vaccinated so he could continue providing support for his family, he thanked all the volunteers and staff personally and returned with a box of chocolates 15 minutes later! Seeing so many people vaccinated on any given day, it’s easy to forget how significant it is for each individual.”

Caroline Barrett, Office Manager, Altrincham Medical Practice

“The clinics are amazing – we all try to make it a positive and efficient experience for our patients. There is always a fabulous, friendly community spirit.”

Volunteer Monty Harrison-Stirling with mum Christina

Monty Harrison-Stirling, 20, Durham University student and Volunteer

“Having experienced Covid at university – albeit only losing taste and smell for several months – I wanted to help the NHS which has been fantastic throughout this crisis. Supporting Lateral Flow Testing at Durham University and now helping my local GP practice is truly rewarding. There’s a really uplifting atmosphere at the clinics and a great team spirit.”

Dr Sonal Pathak, GP Partner, Shay Lane Medical Practice, part of the vaccinating team

“After a tough year, the vaccine gave us hope of a return to our normal lives. At the beginning of the roll-out I had an opportunity to vaccinate our elderly and quickly realised that for many, this was their first outing in months. Seeing the joy and relief on their faces was a fulfilling experience for me. I am grateful to be part of the team delivering this service.”

Nurse Practitioner Maria McDonnell administering a jab

Debra Riley, retired NHS physiotherapist

“As a former NHS worker I was keen to support the programme. The clinics are busy and fast-paced but the team has created such a positive atmosphere for everyone. I feel very privileged to be part of this team and support the programme.”

Emma Foskett, Assistant Practice Manager, West Timperley Medical Centre

It has been lovely to see all the staff across five practices pull together to help our patients at this difficult time. Witnessing the gratitude of patients makes all the hard work worthwhile.

Photography: Claire Harrison