I am now a jabbee.
I went to ExCeL yesterday and received my first vaccine dose.
So that's excellent.
Like many people I'd been waiting for an invite, assuming that someone would eventually get in touch and offer one, either by text or email or maybe via letter. Have faith, I thought, it will come. And eventually it did... but we'll get to that.
In the end I didn't wait for an invite, I logged onto the NHS Book a vaccination website as soon as the eligibility criteria reached my age group. I was impressed by the range of locations offered. Perhaps I got lucky because I'd logged on just after midnight, but the site offered me 30 different vaccination centres within 10 miles of home.
I could have gone to the Science Museum, the Francis Crick Institute or Battersea Arts Centre. I could have gone to hospitals in Greenwich or Westminster. I could have gone to a community centre in Loughton in Essex. I could have gone to high street pharmacies in Clapton, Woolwich, Tottenham, Eltham, Norwood, Palmers Green, Dagenham, Winchmore Hill or Streatham. Nowhere in Tower Hamlets was offered - my closest option was Westfield in Stratford. But I decided to pick ExCeL instead because I've been going on about it a lot, and because the interior's enormous.
I walked there. I even followed the designated walking route from Canning Town, if only to confirm that most of the signage is still incorrect or missing. Even the very first arrow opposite the bus station had peeled off and blown away. It was the first time I'd seen people walking in the opposite direction with stickers and post-vaccine documentation, but still not many people, indeed the queue outside ExCeL remained non-existent.
Just as I was walking up the steps towards the entrance a text message arrived. It was from my GP practice, inviting me to book my Covid-19 vaccination! My appointment is literally in two minutes time, I thought, I do not need this now, but thanks for eventually remembering. The invite system clearly works but one half doesn't know what the other half is doing, hence my GP practice had absolutely no idea what my NHS booking status was.
My confirmation email had told me to bring my booking reference numbers and a face covering, so I had. I'd written my eight-digit booking reference on a post-it so was feeling fairly confident when I presented it to the first smiley volunteer inside the main entrance. Thanks, he said, and do you have your NHS number too? I didn't because it wasn't in the instructions, neither had the number been included in my confirmation email even though it was part of the registration process.
You'll need your NHS number, he said, otherwise anyone could walk in off the streets with just a booking reference. I confess I did whinge at this point, politely, wondering why the onboarding process had been inadequately described. You can always use your phone to find your NHS number, he said, everybody has a phone. I had a comeback for this too, but was promptly invited to cheer up because this was a happy occasion and please carry on down the hall to gate N.
It felt strange to be back inside a building again, one that wasn't either home or a supermarket. And a massive building too, as I was reminded when I entered the main hall and saw the enormous queueing slalom stretched out ahead. It was fine, only twelve people were waiting in it and everyone had plenty of space... which was just as well when the person behind me turned out to have a cough. This was the queue for being checked in, and didn't look like a trivial process so it was going to be a ten minute wait.
I used the time to reply to the text message from my GP. They were offering me a choice of five locations, all in Tower Hamlets, including two in E3 within very easy walking distance of home. None had appeared on my original list, suggesting that GP consortia and the wider NHS are operating in two non-overlapping silos. I clicked the option for "I don't want to book right now" and when prompted to explain noted that I was currently standing in a queue to get my jab elsewhere so didn't need their kind offer thankyou.
Eventually the charming volunteer at the head of the queue directed over to table number 3. My booking reference was checked and I was asked to confirm my name and date of birth. I braced myself for NHS number hassle but no problem, the lady simply held up the screen on her tablet for me to photograph so I'd have the number to hand in the next room. Ten years ago she'd have had to scribble it on a bit of paper, but the advance of personal technology permitted a 100% hygienic solution. I think I got through the check-in process quicker than most.
Next I was off to my vaccination pod in the adjacent part of the hall. It felt like walking into a very small exhibition with no branding, a minor maze of white display stands. A smiling St John Ambulance volunteer welcomed me into my pod, or at least I assumed he was smiling because I couldn't see his lips move. I got to sit in the comfy chair and he checked various details including my NHS number. He also told me which version of the vaccine I'd be receiving, but I already knew it was AstraZeneca because I'd taken a photo of my personal details earlier.
We were then joined by a medical professional with the task of checking I knew what I was in for. She asked about medication and any current symptoms and even asked if I was pregnant because you cannot be too careful. I also got the lowdown on possible side effects and how best to counteract them (paracetamol, not ibuprofen), although I'm pleased to say I haven't had to act on her advice since. It was a longer preamble than I'd been expecting, which helps explain why ExCeL isn't a packed-out vaccine conveyor belt.
Finally it was time to roll up my sleeve for the jab. A syringe was unwrapped and I was given the usual warning that I might feel a sharp stab, but I didn't. The crucial few seconds passed without any discomfort and that was it, I was done. I received a couple of information leaflets and a card confirming which batch of vaccine I'd received, plus the legendary sticker it appears not everyone gets. And that was me all sorted, 25 minutes after walking in.
On the way out I passed waiting areas where anyone driving home was being asked to wait for 15 minutes, whereas as a pedestrian I was allowed to leave straight away. I also walked past several long aisles of empty space which, had things gone differently, might have been filled with patients on respirators or even used as a mass morgue. Instead I now had the vaccine inside me, the one I've been reading about since it was merely a pipedream and which might help get us out of this godawful situation.
I was particularly struck by how many people it had taken to direct me through the system, and also how cheery and helpful they'd been. I'm looking forward to meeting them again, or a different group of cheery helpful people, when I come back for my second dose at the end of May. The only thing I felt was missing was a nice cup of tea and a plate of biscuits on the way out, which is how British crisis management normally operates, but current circumstances alas mitigate against.
My successful day out didn't prevent me from receiving yet another text when I got home, this time from the NHS, telling me I was now eligible for a vaccination and inviting me to book one. If you haven't received your invite yet rest assured it'll come, maybe even after you've been jabbed, because they're sending out too many not too few. I was merely number 23 million and something, about halfway down the queue, so there's a lot more sharp stabs to come over the next few months... wherever you go to have yours.