I retired as a consultant physician at Cork University Hospital in February last year, just before the pandemic. During the first wave, I volunteered to return to work, but was not required. When the call went out for vaccinators, I signed up again, and began a lengthy period of retraining. I waited for several weeks and finally got a call asking if I would be willing to work in the west Cork vaccine programme.
I thought I would be vaccinating, but no — what they really needed was a doctor to be available to answer any medical questions from the nurses (who do the actual injections), to assuage any anxieties from attendees and to provide first aid to anyone with a reaction to the vaccine. I work Tuesdays in Clonakilty and Wednesdays in Bantry, wandering around in a green gilet emblazoned with the word “medic”. I have, quite literally, donned the green jersey.
My role is to listen, to reassure. After more than a year at home, I am intoxicated by spending entire days just talking. Come to me with any concern, I say, no matter how trivial. I have luxuriated in the human contact, the inconsequential chat.
On our opening day in Bantry, some of the vaccinees were positively giddy: one woman regretted that she hadn’t brought in prosecco to celebrate. Wild lockdown hair was common among the men, but mysteriously rare in the women. Biological age was sometimes vastly different to chronological age: in the recovery room full of people all aged 69, a few could have passed for 49, and at least one for 89.
It’s different to any medical job I’ve ever done. Everybody — or nearly everybody — is happy to be here, to be given the priceless protection of the vaccine. I have, however, had the very occasional pointed demand: “I don’t want the AstraZeneca, I want the Pfizer.” This is easily addressed: “We’ve got AstraZeneca only. If you don’t have that, you won’t get vaccinated today.”
Women — be they politicians, vaccine scientists or health professionals — have led the way during the pandemic. The west Cork centres are run by two formidably competent women and nearly all the vaccinators are women, some of whom have come out of retirement. We are supported by volunteer groups such as the Civil Defence, who guide the clients through the one-way system. Sandwiches, wraps and scones mysteriously arrive every morning.
On our first day in Bantry we vaccinated more than 200 people; within a week we were up to 300, and a week later, over 400.
For the first time, I could truthfully say that I was proud to work for the HSE. I worked as a hospital doctor in this organisation for many years, and often despaired of its monolithic inflexibility and the glacial pace of change. But Covid changed everything.
Emer, who is in charge in Clonakilty, previously ran a Covid testing centre. She was astonished, she told me, that when she requested something, she got it, without delay, without filling in endless forms: “I asked for a new office to accommodate the staff. When I came in next morning, the builders had already arrived, and it was finished in two days.”
The NHS emerged from the Emergency Medical Service set up during World War II: this service proved that a nationalised, free healthcare system could and would work. The co-operation, camaraderie and can-do spirit of the war years inspired Britain’s greatest social achievement of the 20th century. In Our Age, his history of post-war Britain, Noel Annan wrote: “During the war, people observed the decencies of equal treatment: there was no queue-jumping.”
When they founded the NHS in 1948, prime minister Clement Attlee and health minister Aneurin Bevan saw the new welfare state as a social contract between government and people; Bevan warned the users of the NHS that they would have to become “a mature civilisation” and be moved by a sense of the greater good, not consumerist entitlement.
Ireland’s health service was close to collapse in January last year, just a month before Covid arrived. Our politicians privately despair of fixing this decades-old problem. But Covid could be the catalyst for reform in Ireland, just as the war led to the foundation of the NHS in Britain.
It’s time we Irish observed “the decencies of equal treatment”: the two-tier health system is a stain on our national conscience. As a nation, we should harness the goodwill, commitment and abilities of people like the west Cork vaccinators.
We don’t need management consultants and more reports. We don’t need to outsource leadership and vision: we’ve already got it in-house. Micheál Martin and Stephen Donnelly may not measure up to giants like Attlee and Bevan, but they might look to them for inspiration.
‘The Ministry of Bodies’ by Seamus O’Mahony is published by Head of Zeus