Portraits tell the stories of the UK’s volunteer vaccinators

A photo project focuses on the ‘ordinary’ people assisting Britain's biggest ever mass-vaccination program.

Photographs By Matt Davis
Published 1 Jul 2021, 20:56 BST
Zainab Yasmin, 43, London. “I work as a public health programme manager in Tower Hamlets. I’m ...

Zainab Yasmin, 43, London. “I work as a public health programme manager in Tower Hamlets. I’m studying for a masters degree in public health. I joined St John Ambulance in March 2020, but I couldn’t start volunteering immediately as I contracted COVID 19. Experiencing the psychological and physical symptoms of COVID spurred me to want to help even more. I volunteered at Heathrow Airport as part of the Falcon Moonshot study to test and validate new, faster COVID tests. Now I’m volunteering at the Royal London Hospital, supporting staff in the emergency department and adult critical care alongside my role as a vaccinator.” 

Photograph by Matt Davis

THERE can be few experiences as universal as COVID-19. And while situations and abilities to weather the toll of the pandemic have varied wildly across societies, the UK’s vaccination program has, by and large, been a leveller – with doses administered equitably following a hierarchy of vulnerability.

Coronavirus has now infected over 4.8 million people in the UK, of which 128,000 have died within 28 days of a positive test. The UK’s vaccination programme was launched on 8 December 2020, when 91 year-old Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive a COVID-19 vaccine outside of a clinical trial.

She received the dose at University College Hospital, Coventry from NHS nurse May Parsons. 100 people were vaccinated that day in the same facility – the beginning of a vaccination program of unprecedented scale across the world.   

Rachel Gillis, 33, and Medina Walters, 65, Leeds. Rachel (left): “My mum and I are black British Caribbean and I’m a Muslim. We live together in Leeds. My mum is a retired nurse. She now works as a part-time minibus driver for our local council, taking vulnerable adults to day centres. I work as a freelance translator, mainly for UN organisations, translating documents. We both knew how important the vaccination campaign would be for getting the country back to normal and we wanted to contribute to the effort. I'm an avid flamenco dancer and I recently took up kickboxing, which I really enjoy. In her spare time, mum loves gardening, reading, cycling and DIY. She’s the person who most inspires me. She's such a hard worker and she's instilled that same ethic in me.”

Photograph by Matt Davis

At the beginning of the UK’s biggest mass-vaccination program, amidst NHS workforce shortages the UK Government green-lit national protocols to allow the vaccines to be administered by non-clinicians.

But with primary healthcare professionals under pressure beneath an avalanche of hospital admissions, in addition to retired doctors and nurses, pharmacists, and community health workers, a key part of the immunisation drive – which to June 28 has administered at least one vaccine dose to 44 million people – remains an army of medically-trained volunteers.    

The expansion of infrastructure and logistics required for the vaccine program have seen this network supporting everything from on-site movement at vaccination centres to patient transport and aftercare. But when it came to the literal sharp end of the vaccination program, another thing was needed: medically-trained volunteers to physically administer the doses.

Nia Faulder, 35, Bolton: “A mum of two, I’m a scientist and I work as a programme manager for an international education provider in Manchester. I use a wheelchair because I suffered a nerve compression injury during pregnancy in 2017. I’ve been playing wheelchair basketball with The Bulls Disabled Sports Club in Bolton since June 2019. My disability nearly precluded me from training to be a vaccinator as one of the screening questions was “can you stand up for a six-hour shift?” to which I obviously replied “no”. After exchanges with the HR and occupational health teams, I was accepted on the training programme. My beloved grandad was my greatest inspiration in life and he died of Covid in January 2021, shortly before he was due to be vaccinated.”

Photograph by Matt Davis

Photographer Matt Davis chose to focus his photo project on vaccinators for St John Ambulance (SJA), when his wife, who works as a management consultant, signed up to be trained as a ‘jabber.’ “I kept hearing about the vaccination effort but very little about the volunteers themselves,” he said. “It made me wonder who these volunteers were.” (Related: why vaccines are critical for keeping diseases at bay.)

The charity, which provides medical care and first aid through a network of trained volunteers, and is the only non-NHS organisation to have been nationally contracted to train volunteers to administer the COVID-19 vaccine.

Set up in 1880 and taking its name from the Knights of St John – who provided a field hospital for 11th century pilgrims in Jerusalem – the organisation has treated everything from war wounds and sports injuries, to youngsters overcome by Beatlemania.

COVID-19 added another dimension for the 30,000 volunteer vaccinators the charity was asked to recruit and train by the NHS upon approval of the vaccines. “With around 10,000 skilled first aid volunteers within St John, the initial phase of our vaccination training programme focused on getting those people signed up, trained and ready to be deployed,” says Chris Hawkswell, St John Ambulance's National Project Manager for the NHS COVID-19 Vaccination Programme in an email. “Then we reached out to our existing networks – our workplace first aid training delegates, our voluntary sector partners – including the Royal Voluntary Service and British Red Cross – and businesses to recruit and train extra vaccination volunteers. Thousands more were recruited from NHS Volunteer Responders.”

Alan Wrigley, 69, Yorkshire: “I used to be a commercial pilot and still work part-time as a flight examiner. I was part of teams that built a Eurofox two-seater light aeroplane and re-built a Falke motor glider. It was very rewarding to fly something that one had been responsible for creating. My passions in life include my family, gliding, playing the saxophone – and I’m a great admirer of the late Leonard Cohen who wrote the most beautiful lyrics and sang them in an incomparable voice. The person who most inspires me is The Queen who has given her whole life selflessly to public service. I speak Spanish and spend five to six months in Jerez each year.”  

Photograph by Matt Davis

After training in administering an inter-muscular injection, anyone giving the vaccine then needed to meet the same criteria as NHS workers. According to Hawkswell, “each vaccine that is approved by the MHRA has its own, specific e-learning training developed by Public Health England (PHE) which volunteers are required to complete before they are deployed.” (Related: photos show the world's essential workers serving on the front lines.)

The organisation estimates its volunteers have so far donated 500,000 hours of their time, both giving the jabs and ensuring the wellbeing of those immediately vaccinated. Last month, St John ambulance launched the 'Ask Me' campaign, with the aim of raising awareness of its volunteers as individuals – of which these images, and the stories of the people in them, form a part. 

Getting the shot

Davis, an award-winning portrait photographer whose previous work during the pandemic included a series documenting the experiences of children at home during lockdown, had a particular idea for framing the volunteers in his project.

“I wanted to tell the story in one image, which is always very difficult.” He told National Geographic UK. “I wanted people to be able to look at them out of context and still tell what was going on.”

“Each portrait has three elements. The first two are that they’re all wearing a consistent uniform – the apron and gloves – but also their work clothes [underneath], so you can also see what they do outside of volunteering. The third element was their environment – their homes. By doing that I wanted it to show these are people from all different backgrounds, but it also helps them be more themselves, and lets their character come through.”

Davis says he “deliberately went as far as [he] could. London, Oxford, Manchester, Leeds,” to provide a snapshot of the volunteer effort around the country. The selection – ranging from an Olympian athlete to a retired US soldier – are certainly diverse, though according to Davis, they had at least one thing in common.

“I felt incredibly humbled... like I needed to try harder after meeting them. And funnily enough, that’s how a lot of the volunteers felt,” he said. “They never felt like they were giving enough, even if in my mind, they were giving a tremendous amount. They just wanted to help.”

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