I’d love to say that a sense of citizenship and love of humanity inspired me to sign up as a volunteer vaccination centre helper. But the truth is less selfless: I was just so bored.
Spending most of 2020 on furlough was (whisper it) really good fun; long summer days cycling down scenic backroads blurred into one another. This winter’s lockdown, however, was a very different prospect. Short dark days and miserable weather meant I was soon missing work.
Anything to get me out of the house sounded appealing, so a call out on social media for volunteers felt like the stars aligning. The possibility of feeling useful again was intoxicating – here was an opportunity to play a part in something huge, and I could get the ball rolling by just clicking a link. So I did.
Online registration took half an hour, and after waiting for the email to arrive with news of volunteer opportunities I put my name down for six-hour shifts. Two months later here I am, a furloughed warehouse workerdirecting members of the public to a small booth for a potentially life-saving injection.
Without exception, everyone queues politely and is glad to be here. I don’t come across any negativity all shift.
Ask anyone in Oswestry about our world-renowned orthopaedic hospital, and they’ll tell one thing: Harrison Ford was treated there once. I can’t confirm Ford was ever treated locally, though he was once photographed on a canal boat nearby, and he was a member of a Shropshire Flying Club, so it sounds believable.
The hospital is home to one of our two vaccination centres. We have another, smaller one by a patch of industrial wasteland, possibly soon to be developed into our first out-of-town retail park.
Today, I’m volunteering at the vaccination centre by the wasteland. Arriving at 7.45, I help set out the queue barriers and locate the iPad for registering people. The first of today’s 300 visitors has wandered in somehow, and must be directed back out and round the building.
At 7.55 we’re ready to go and I’m on ‘meet and greet’ duties. Every person arriving gets asked for their all-important booking reference number, today’s mostly start with a 10, apparently last week it was a nine – a nice reminder that the campaign is moving forward. I then have a list of questions to ask before directing them to a queue where another volunteer points them to the next available vaccinator.
Without exception, everyone queues politely and is glad to be here. I don’t come across any negativity all shift – either a sign Oswestry is a really friendly place (ask Harrison Ford) or that people are really glad to be getting their vaccine.
Attendees fall into two camps: the younger age groups – who seem to know what to expect they come in, answer questions quickly, line up, get vaccinated, and leave – and older or less able people for whom today is a trip into the unknown. The cliché of people coming out for the first time in months turns out not to be a cliché.
With this group, answers are deliberated over and instructions gratefully received, some are so thankful I worry they think I discovered the vaccine myself. One person nervously asks if they can use a chair while they wait, and I feel saddened they think such a small request might be unacceptable.
All the volunteers and staff here have one focus, do whatever it takes to get people in one door and out the other, friendly but efficient, this nondescript building has an aura of positivity about it. When you read about 700,000 vaccinations delivered in one day, places like this will have played their part. Non-attendance here has been virtually non-existent, and vaccines meant for those who don’t turn up are quickly used on those who turn up on the wrong day.
After two hours, volunteers change tasks. I’m now covering the ‘recovery’ room where anyone driving has to wait before leaving. The room is usually the pub’s bar area, so every other man makes a joke about getting a pint.
I finish my shift with two hours on car park duty – it’s a fine sunny day, making for a lovely experience. Greeting people as they drive in, I then either ask them to wait in their car or signpost them round the rear of the building to register, depending on their appointment time and the length of the queue inside.
The queue is being managed by Jack, a bar manager and very sharp dresser. It should come as no surprise that a bar manager keeps the queue moving quickly and efficiently, meaning most people arrive, park, register, and are vaccinated within 15 minutes.
My fellow volunteers straddle a wide age range, among us a bus driver and an ex-nurse. We all have to wear slightly too large hi-vis vests – I suspect it’s the most unfashionable thing Jack has ever worn in his life.
I’m the tiniest cog in a huge machine, but I feel like a useful cog.
In case I paint too rosy a picture of volunteering, I’ll add that most of everyone’s day is spent standing around. There is so much waiting: waiting for a car to arrive, waiting for someone to register, waiting for a vaccinator to be available, waiting for a person to leave the recovery room so their chair can be wiped down with a sterilising wipe.
It’s not all donated handmade fudge and sunny car parks. But when 2pm rolls around, my shift ends and I cycle home, I feel like I’ve been involved with something genuinely useful.
Those summer days spent leisurely cycling around the county on furlough were fun, but aimless. Time spent dedicated solely to your own happiness gets boring eventually. Here, I get a huge amount of purpose: it gives me the rhythm of work, a place to be by a certain time, people to meet regularly, new relationships to develop, routines to settle into. I’m the tiniest cog in a huge machine, but I feel like a useful cog.
It may be an unfashionable view, but I genuinely believe most people do want to help make a difference where they can. Our government’s reaction to Covid19 demonstrated the worst characteristics of some people, but the public’s reaction to helping with the vaccination programme is demonstrating the best in others.
Michael Hudson is a vaccine centre volunteer and warehouse worker