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Around 17,000 patients have received their Covid vaccine at Newbury Racecourse after just one month

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An army of volunteers are on hand to help combat coronavirus

Glen Higgins meets and greets patients as they arrive
Glen Higgins meets and greets patients as they arrive

THE Vaccination Centre at Newbury Racecourse has been open a month.

It first opened its doors on January 14 and in that time has vaccinated nearly 17,000 West Berkshire residents. The centre is a collaboration between nine surgeries – Burdwood, Thatcham Medical Practice, Falklands, Eastfield, Strawberry Hill, Downland, Kintbury and Woolton Hill, Hungerford and Lambourn – and the vaccines take place in the Grandstand area.

When the hub was first announced the nine surgeries put out an appeal for volunteers to help run the large-scale vaccination programme and I decided to sign up and do my bit.

Beverley Cross is a lead volunteer at the racecourse and has been so heartened and moved by the extraordinary work, support and selfless input from staff, GPs and volunteers.

She said: “In January our GP sent out a call for volunteers and although my husband and I work full time, we felt we had to do something positive. We found ourselves as two of five volunteer leads. We were given hundreds of email addresses from other potential volunteers and within 24 hours had run two (of six) inductions.

“We realised too late that the induction forms did not have volunteers’ contact details so spent hours trying to match up email addresses with signatures... within 48 hours the first clinic was up and running.”

Last week, February 7 to 12, was the busiest week for the Vaccination Centre, with vaccines administered every day.

On Sunday, February 7, the centre celebrated its 10,000th vaccine and by Friday they had added nearly 7,000 more people.
It is a remarkable achievement for a GP-led initiative supported by an army of volunteers.

I have done a few volunteer shifts at the racecourse and can honestly say that last week the freezing cold temperatures made it quite a challenge.

As a volunteer, when you turn up you do not know which area you will be assigned to. There are three shifts each day that the vaccine clinics are operating and I was on the middle shift last Thursday, from 11.30am to 3.30pm.

When you arrive, you are greeted by one of the leaders – you can recognise them by their orange hi-viz jackets – the rest of us are in yellow.

Caroline Billington was team leader for my shift and her job involves making sure all the volunteers sign in, use hand sanitiser, have their temperature taken and have their mask. They are also supplied with visors if required.

Ms Billington is, in her words, ‘a seasoned volunteer’. She has driven the Handybus for many years and when the first lockdown was announced she helped out at Fair Close Centre.

She is also a befriender – regularly keeping in contact with someone who is on their own and providing a friendly voice and ear.

She said: “I should be overseas right now doing charity work. I was in Cambodia just before all this started. I like to be kept busy and my motivation is wanting to help out where I will be most needed.”

Ms Billington is a retired accountant and has lived in Newbury for more than 30 years.

She said of her role: “I’ve been both an ‘orange’ jacket and a ‘yellow’ jacket on the various shifts I have done. Today, as the team leader, once all the volunteers are sorted, I will then go around and basically troubleshoot.

“If there is a bottleneck somewhere, volunteers will be reassigned. The fantastic thing is how amenable everybody is – nobody minds being asked to do different jobs or to move around to ease the process. The whole attitude of everyone is positive and that makes the process so much easier.”

She explained that there had been inevitable teething problems at the beginning of the process, but these had mainly been ironed out and, she said: “The great thing is the organisers listen to feedback and act on it.

“Nobody has ever done anything like this before and on this scale, but the cooperation between the different teams and the communication means that on the whole it works and the positive feedback from patients has been a real boost as well.”

It is time for me to take up my post and she takes me to the entrance where the patients arrive, where I will meet and greet and hopefully point people in the right direction.

There are two doors and depending on which surgery you are with you are directed accordingly.

I would not have been able to do this with so much efficiency without the help of my co-greeter Glen Higgins, who had done many more shifts than me and knew exactly what was what.

Mrs Higgins is a retired practice manager who lives in Chapel Row. She told me: “I really wanted to help because the only way to get us through this whole thing is to get the vaccinations done.”

And I can back up her comment that “everybody is really lovely and helpful”.

I couldn’t agree more. Without her help and the waves and smiles from other volunteers, it would have been a tough shift. The entrance to the Grandstand is in a wind tunnel, which means on days such as last week blasts of cold air run through.

It’s quite an experience, but it was made easier by the constant supply of small chocolate bars, which were regularly brought around, along with hot drinks, to the outside team – car park attendants, wheelchair marshals and meeters and greeters.

Ed Tryon was stationed on wheelchairs and his wife Nina was handing out much-needed sustenance.

Mr and Mrs Tryon are one of many couples who have volunteered and they had a personal reason for doing so.

Mr Tryon said: “We both had coronavirus last March, just as the first lockdown was imposed. My parents got it at the same time and we are pretty sure our three young children also had it, although they were not tested.”

Fortunately none of the family had to be hospitalised and they all recovered, but it did mean that Mr and Mrs Tryon wanted to do something.

Mr Tryon said: “I have never volunteered for anything before, but we both just wanted to do something to feel like we were helping the community. Being a first-time volunteer, it’s been a really amazing experience and I am really enjoying it."

Mr Tryon, who lives in Chaddleworth, said he was doing a double shift last weekend when he was told that both his sisters had contracted the virus.

“The irony wasn’t lost on me,” he said. “Here I was trying to help along the vaccination programme and in the meantime yet more members of my family were falling ill.”

Again, thankfully both of Mr Tryon’s sisters only suffered mild symptoms.

Mrs Tryon said: “Everyone is really cheerful and just working towards the same goal – to help people get out and about and for life to return to normal.”

We all wear masks for our shifts, but we also had safety visors because we were dealing with the clinically vulnerable and one thing I have learned is that washing your hair on the day of a shift is not a good idea if you are outside – both my hat and visor were whisked off by the wind that blasts through the passageway.

When people enter the building, they are greeted by volunteers who put sanitiser on their hands and take their temperature before directing them to their surgery check-in desk.

One of the volunteers on duty during my shift was Heidi Priddie, whose husband James was outside on car park duty.

The Priddies are well-known in Newbury as they own the coffee shop in Weaver’s Walk, which is closed due to the lockdown.

Mrs Priddie told me: “Our coffee shop is shut so it seemed to be better use of our time than just sitting at home. It is a humbling experience. Some people have not been out at all since March last year and they are all so grateful and relieved.
“People say they can’t thank us enough for what we are doing – they’re all lovely – and the atmosphere among the volunteers is really positive as well.”

By the same token the volunteers are extremely grateful for all the donations that have been made by companies and individuals, providing sustenance to keep them going throughout the day.

Mrs Cross said: “The snacks and cakes and biscuits are hugely appreciated by all our volunteers. Everything that is donated is received with grateful thanks.”

At one point, Ms Billington comes over to the meet and greet area of the operation to see if we need extra help.

“It’s fantastic seeing everyone coming in,” she said. “It can be quite daunting, but there is a real sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ and it has highlighted the community feeling. Without the patients playing their part too the whole thing would not go so smoothly.”

At the end of my four-hour shift I was grateful to get home to the warm – and a large mug of tea, but the experience is such a positive one that it leaves you exhilarated and ready to face the next shift.

  • There are 301 volunteers
  • The clinic runs three four-hour shifts a day: 8am-noon, 11.30am-3.30pm, 3pm-7pm
  • Each shift requires 30 volunteers (likely to increase when the carparking area is extended)
  • Volunteers are from all parts of West Berkshire covering all nine surgeries involvedThe age range of volunteers is 16 to 75
  • The male/female ratio is roughly 50:50
  • Many couples have signed up as volunteers
  • Tea, coffee, snacks consumed? – countless!

Heidi Priddie takes people's temperature as they come into the grandstand and directs them to their surgery check in

James Priddie on car park duty

Ed and Nina Tryon have both had Covid and wanted to do their bit

A volunteer directs a patient towards a cubicle

All the chairs are wiped down and sanitised after each patient has left

Caroline Billington is one of the team leaders ensuring the shift runs smoothly

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