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Make use of local resources to achieve rural roll-out of the vaccine

The beginning of the end is in sight, but to get there in a manner that maximises safety and minimises stress we need to think about community planning in the far north of the UK, writes Jamie Stone MP. | PA Images

3 min read

The beginning of the end is in sight. But if remote areas of the UK are to get there safely, some community planning is required

Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross is geographically one of the UK’s biggest constituencies. It is also the most remote on the UK mainland. The hills and the vast moors have been there since time immemorial; man’s existence in this area is continually challenged by this landscape and some of the UK’s harshest weather conditions.

The pandemic has been a real test for the local NHS, but one it has passed with flying colours.

But for my constituency, this vaccine presents a new dilemma. The Highlands contains a higher proportion of older people compared to Scotland in general. It is one of the coldest parts of the UK, and vaccination will happen in the middle of winter.

So, must we require those first in the queue for the vaccine to travel vast distances south to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness? Or, as I recently suggested to Matt Hancock in the Chamber of the Commons, should we not seek to take the vaccine to the patient instead? 

Must we require those first in the queue for the vaccine to travel vast distances?

Matt gave me a helpful answer. He confirmed the principle of taking the vaccine to the patient rather than vice versa; he stressed that this policy would apply all over the UK because the vaccine roll-out is a UK government initiative, rather than a Scottish government one.

At the height of lockdown, our Armed Forces lent a helping hand by sending out ‘roving testing teams’ that took testing kits to the hardest to reach homes in Britain. We expect they’ll do the same with getting out the vaccine.  

The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius and comes in batches of 975 doses. Putting a small box in the back of a nurse’s or doctor’s car and travelling to the very remotest parts is not feasible. 

Instead I suggest we establish two vaccination centres in the county of Caithness – one in Wick and the other in Thurso. These towns are existing NHS and shopping centres for north and west Sutherland, which means local people are quite familiar with the necessary journey time and distance.

In the short term, this could possibly be delivered via existing health facilities. However when we come to the more general roll-out of the vaccine for the broader population, these facilities may struggle with capacity. 

Large numbers of people queueing for the vaccine must be kept warm. They must be socially distanced and, very importantly, they must be kept in sight of a medical professional for 15 minutes or more after the injection in case they exhibit any immediate side-effects.

Alison Brooks, a local doctor in Thurso, put it to me that possibly the best way to address this task would be to use the two big high schools in Wick and Thurso. They have the space for distancing to operate an in-out system that is safe. They can offer people who have been vaccinated a cup of tea and a biscuit while they wait 15 minutes after their injection. 

Both communities are known for their excellent volunteering record and I should imagine they would run with the suggestion, and even enjoy doing it. 

The beginning of the end is in sight, but to get there in a manner that maximises safety and minimises stress we need to think about this kind of community planning in the far north of the UK – including using our excellent Armed Forces when necessary – and I am sure the same is true of remote parts of England and Wales. Working together we shall beat the virus.


Jamie Stone is the Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.

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