Jez Hemming, local democracy reporter
A Betsi Cadwaldr health board chief has hailed the first Covid-19 vaccinations to be dispensed in the north of Wales as the “start of the fightback” against coronavirus.
Jim McGuigan, the health board’s assistant eastern area medical director, was speaking in Wrexham after the first doses of the BioNtech/Pfizer vaccines had been given to healthcare staff.
Dr McGuigan, himself a GP, spoke about the stress of living under the shadow of Covid-19 exactly 260 days since UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson first called for a lockdown of life as we knew it.
As beaming healthcare staff shuttled between rooms in the vaccination centre, buoyed by the hope the new vaccine represents, Mr McGuigan outlined the historic nature of what was happening around us.
He said: “I think this is one of the most important days this country has had for many, many years.
“It’s the start of the fightback against coronavirus. It’s the start of getting society back to normal, schools back to normal, jobs back to normal, health services back to normal.
“I can’t think of anything more exciting – it’s fantastic news.”
One sensed this was a day that hadn’t come to soon for health staff who clapped in the early stages of the pandemic but have been fighting to keep their heads above water lately.
“Day to day work has been very stressful, having to gown up, mask up and also not knowing if some patients have or have no symptoms,” he said. “It’s very difficult not knowing if your going to bring any disease home to your family, so this is a great day.”
Wales was the first home nation to receive the vaccine, enough to make 40,000 doses which will protect 20,000 people.
Betsi Cadwaladr received 975 doses initially but more will come through as the Belgian Pfizer facility feeds more into the UK.
The fragility of the vaccine has been an issue but the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation have moved heaven and earth to approve and get the guidelines in place.
The new vaccine needs to be transported at between -70C and -80C and once thawed can only stay viable for a maximum of five days.
Add to that it comes in vials which have to be diluted and split into five doses and you understand the mammoth logistical task it has been to get to the first injection in the north of Wales at around 8.07am this morning.
All Welsh health boards started administering vaccines to care home staff, those over 80 years and frontline health and social care workers most at risk at around the same time this morning.
Despite the elation that at least the road to some semblance of normal life is in sight, Dr McGuigan said it would be well after Easter before we could think about relaxing.
He said: “We are not going to be immune for quite some time so this isn’t the time to rejoice, this isn’t the time to go back to normality now.
“I think it’s a marathon, it’s going to take some time. We’ve got to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of people and it’s not going to be a quick process.
“You’ve got to remember these are small numbers of vaccines at first, so we have to carry on with social distancing – we still have to be careful.
“We still have to self-isolate if we have symptoms suggestive of coronavirus.
Barely able to conceal a smile, he added: “But at the same time we can take great heart from this. Things are going to gradually change.”
It is hoped a second vaccine, developed through a collaboration between Oxford University and Astra Zeneca, will gain regulatory approval early in the New Year.
If and when that happens health and public health professionals hope the pace of vaccination will step up.