Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Recently, I was invited to appear in an NHS video to persuade people across the Midlands to take up the offer of a Covid-19 vaccination. The video was launched as the Midlands approaches 13 million vaccine doses, the first region in the UK to hit that landmark.
However, we still face challenges here. West Midlands local authorities are below the national average for administering first doses. We must investigate the reasons behind that fact – and address them.
The NHS video featured a cross section of local people explaining what the vaccine means to them. My own contribution was personal, as I am one of thousands across our region who have lost a loved-one to this terrible disease – my mum. I know very well that if she’d been vaccinated, she’d still be here.
I want to use this column to write a little about my experience, but also about where the vaccination programme is now and how, as society cautiously reopens, a final push in uptake is the only way that remaining restrictions can be removed.
I really didn’t anticipate my mum’s death – I was out walking with her just a week before she went into hospital, where she contracted Covid. It was an incredible shock.
The day after she went into hospital, mum was called for her vaccine. It could have saved her life – it’s that simple. And that’s why I feel even more determined to get across the message that everyone should take up the offer to grab a jab.
There is no doubt that the NHS vaccination programme is having a major impact. It has kept around 52,000 people out of hospital and saved an estimated 60,000 lives.
The vaccination programme in the Midlands has been a huge logistical exercise, which has constantly expanded to new sites, reached out to more people and ensured that a steady supply of vaccine is available. In terms of reach, every Britsih adult has now been offered a vaccination, which was a key part of the decision to ease restrictions and open up businesses.
I have personally worked to ensure there are enough supplies of vaccine to deliver the jabs needed here. We can look everyone in the eye and say they have been invited to get a jab.
Vaccination centres can be found everywhere from town halls to Villa Park, from night spots to supermarkets. We’ve seen the region’s businesses swing behind the fight against Covid throughout the pandemic – from the NEC Group coming forward to host the NHS Nightingale Hospital to Birmingham’s iconic Nightingale Nightclub hosting a vaccination centre last weekend.
But we still face challenges, with some areas and communities displaying a higher rate of vaccine hesitancy. We are addressing this through outreach work that clearly explains the importance of vaccination, dispels any concerns over safety, and helps people book an appointment or find a drop-in clinic.
There have been huge efforts by many of our faith groups to promote the vaccine, dispelling anti-vax fake news, as well as addressing legitimate concerns around fertility and long-term pre-existing conditions. Clifton Road Mosque, in Birmingham, was the first Islamic centre of its kind in the world to give out jabs, making a global TV celebrity of its imam Sheikh Nuru Mohammed, who has been dynamic in extoling the wisdom of vaccination.
Now, with almost three-quarters of adults double-jabbed across the UK, we are seeing the national programme swing to focus more on younger people. People aged from 18-34 now make up more than one in five of those admitted to hospital with the virus.
That’s compared to just one in 20 in that age group at the peak of the winter wave in January. In a young and diverse region such as the West Midlands, a lack of vaccine uptake in these groups is a concern to all. Indeed, the profile of our population means, as a whole, we are more unvaccinated than elsewhere – so there is a real need for young people to get jabbed.
One way to reach younger people is to fold vaccine advice into projects to help them find work in the wake of the pandemic. We know that their generation has been the hardest hit economically by the pandemic, and this is an especially difficult time for those who are getting exam results and not sure about what to do next.
I have been working with the Street Team, a young group promoting work and volunteering opportunities related to the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, plus the national Kickstart scheme and apprenticeships. It has been fantastic to chat to young people and hear about their experiences, as well as telling them about the opportunities being created in my push to create 100,000 jobs in two years. However, we have also been using the initiative to encourage greater vaccine take-up among young people.
The NHS is also working to rapidly extend the programme to 16 and 17-year-olds, while children aged 12 to 15 who are clinically vulnerable or live with adults who are at increased risk will also be invited for their vaccine over the coming weeks too.
This huge national vaccination effort, which began with the oldest people in our society, may seem to be drawing to a conclusion as we focus on our youngest citizens. But there is a risk that we will rest on our laurels, instead of driving to get the job done.
In Birmingham, right now, hospitals are cancelling critical operations because of a lack of ICU beds, as virus cases continue to drain NHS resources. This is not acceptable.
Now is the time to press the message home that everyone should get jabbed, and that young people can become seriously ill as a result of Covid.
The debate over ‘vaccine passports’ is important, but right now encouragement should be at the heart of the vaccine drive, not the threat of sanction. Achieving an uptake is the only way that remaining restrictions can be removed, with no new ones introduced. Before our schools and universities return, we must lock in the success of the vaccine programme.
This pandemic has touched all parts of society, impacting tragically on thousands of families, my own included. Yet communities have been sustained throughout by a feeling that we are all in this together. Now, as we face one final push to increase vaccination uptake, we need that spirit more than ever. The message is clear: everyone, of every age and of every background – get the jab!