Michael Clifford: Level with the public about the vaccine roll out

There is a body of evidence that suggests the roll-out of the vaccines here is not being conducted in an organised, planned manner
Michael Clifford: Level with the public about the vaccine roll out

A doctor prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for injection. It has been claimed that a GP practice near Belmullet received 420 Covid vaccines last Friday instead of 42. All is not as it is being portrayed in the rollout of vaccines.
Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire

“Teething problems” is an expression being used by state agencies and the government to explain away issues around the vaccine roll-out. Teething problems would have been perfectly acceptable 12 months ago. Back then the World Health Organization’s Mike Ryan exhorted that “perfection is the enemy of good” in fighting the virus.

As with much else, Mr Ryan has said in the last year, he was spot on with that observation. The onset of the pandemic was a major shock. Tackling it required fast action, even if that meant, for instance, misspending money in the short term, or making management decisions that might appear rash in normal circumstances. Action, immediate and messy if necessary, was the main thing.

All of that was a long time ago. The shock has dissipated, the world has attempted to come to grips with a new reality. If, however, you were to cast an eye across some aspects of the roll-out of the vaccine in this country, you might think the state apparatus is still in shock, flailing around as if vaccines dropped from the heavens last week.

Since November we have known as a fact that vaccines were on the way. Prior to that, the possibility was always there. Yet there is a body of evidence that suggests that the roll-out of the vaccines here is not being conducted in an organised, planned manner. The following are a few examples.

A friend of mine in Dublin was on a panel with the HSE to provide a service that was more educational than anything to do with health. It was a part-time gig, three hours a week, many miles from the frontline of anything. She hasn’t worked in it since 2019.

Yet in the last few weeks, she has received two missives from the HSE, one telling her that she was on a priority list to receive the vaccine based on her work, and a second to say that she was also on a list to be called in the event of vaccines doses requiring use in a short time span. She isn’t taking up the offers because she feels she doesn’t deserve to be so far up the pecking order. She is flabbergasted that she has been prioritised in this manner.

The father of a friend in Cork is in hospital since suffering a serious illness just before Christmas. His family have been trying to get him vaccinated. Restrictions mean they haven’t seen him in the flesh since he went into hospital. For the last four weeks, at least, they have been phoning, writing, mailing, hassling anyone who might have the power to get him vaccinated. His GP offered to don PPE and go into the hospital but that wasn’t possible.

Covid has been on his ward. He has a serious health condition. Yet up until this week — and it’s still not fully confirmed — there was no specific plan to vaccinate this most vulnerable category of people.

On February 18, the HSE’s chief clinical officer Colm Henry was asked at a media briefing about vaccinating hospital patients.

“There’s a lot of people over 70 who are in hospitals and not only do they need to get the vaccine on an equitable basis to other people over 70 in the community, but one could argue even more so because they’re in hospital, they need to have access to the vaccine,” he said. One could argue? Surely there’s no argument as to the vulnerability of elderly patients in hospital. He went on to say “we’ll be communicating…to the hospital groups early next week as to how this should be done".

Eight weeks after the roll-out began the HSE was getting into talks with hospitals over how to vaccinate one of the most vulnerable categories of citizens?

On the same day, the HSE stated that it was “in talks” with the ambulance service to see if something could be done about vaccinating over-85s who are confined to their own homes. Surely all of these talks should have taken place three months ago?

My 86-year-old mother is still waiting to be vaccinated. She has not, despite the best efforts of her GP, even received a confirmed date on which she will get the jab. Fortunately, she is in relatively good health and mad for road, but others in her age category, numbering 72,500 nationally, may not be as well equipped to take setbacks.

Prior to the rollout for Over 85s on February 15, the HSE stated that all would be vaccinated within three weeks. At that stage of life, when time takes on an added preciousness, such assurances are taken very seriously. Now it looks like the schedule for all to be vaccinated is pushed out to at least four weeks.

My mother’s experience is far from unique. Reports from across the country point to GPs being given dates for delivery that have not been kept. These doctors in turn then have to inform their patients that their appointments must be rescheduled for another date, often unspecified.

On Wednesday, at parliamentary party meetings for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the problems over delays and rescheduling for the vaccine around the country were aired.

On the same day, Belmullet-based GP and former senator Keith Swanick tweeted this: “A practice in neighbouring village received 420 Covid vaccines last Friday instead of 42. Myself and other practices in Belmullet still await our allocation. Our patients are being disenfranchised. Who’s in charge of this process?”

On Thursday, callers to RTÉ’s Liveline recounted their experience of the same.

Later that day, the HSE’s chief executive Paul Reid said the organisation was working with GPs to address supply issues that had “arisen in recent days”.

The issues did not arise in recent days. Surely Mr Reid must have some knowledge of GPs around the country contacting the HSE for at least the last two weeks complaining about missed delivery dates and wondering when exactly they will be receiving the vaccine.

The suspicion is that the mess-ups only became “an issue” when individual stories were brought into the public domain through politicians and the media.

To a large extent, therein lies the problem. Teething problems occur. Mistakes are easily made in a nationwide roll-out. The public, to a large extent, acknowledges the size of the task. But a source of great anger out there is that many believe the HSE – and government – are not levelling with them.

At national level, the spin is that the roll-out is motoring along, bar a few teething problems. Yet on the ground GPs, and other frontline staff, are having to explain to expectant members of the public that all is not as it is being portrayed.

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