Thursday, 17 December 2020
Covid-19 Task Force: Statements
I wish to make two main points to the Minister. I have read his vaccination strategy and implementation plan. It is impressive and I wish him, the task force, and everybody involved well because this is the most important piece of work that the Minister and his Government will undertake during its term of office. That is why I have previously called for a separate Ministry to take full and final responsibility to ensure effective, efficient, safe and timely roll-out of the vaccine. Let me assure him that in no way does this question his competence or that of his Department. The Minister already has a 24-7 job with very significant responsibilities. We cannot get this wrong.
The implementation phase, and I have read through it, is multilayered and multifaceted. There is a long vaccine supply chain starting with supply, then proper storage, and this is different for different vaccines. We need to organise distribution at both national and local levels and to ensure that adequate numbers of vaccinators are in the right place at the right time. There will be scheduling of appointments and the contacting of individuals, often more than once. We need to ensure informed consent, arrangements for arrival, check-in, vaccination and follow-up. We will then need to do that again because most of the vaccines will require a second dose. As well as that, at an overall level, there must be effective governance and data protection systems, adequate regulatory processes, proper surveillance and monitoring, and, crucially, good clear communications and public engagement.
The reason I mention all these is because the undertaking is massive. The Minister knows that. Regarding those who already have 24-7 jobs, if there is going to be no new Ministry – it does not seem that there will be – the Minister should make sure he has all the resources necessary in his Department to get the job done.
The other point I want to make is on public acceptance. Many have spoken about this here. We want to see a high take-up of the vaccine. The best explanation I have heard was made by a Sinn Féin colleague two or three weeks ago. The individual asked me to consider how I would react if I went to the doctor to get the usual prescription for a certain illness and the doctor said there was a new medication that targeted my illness very effectively and, from what could be seen, gave good results. In such circumstances, the vast majority of us, including me, would say it was great and that we were happy with it. The truth is that the position on a new vaccine is similar, but it is often viewed in a very different way.
It is crucial that we take on board and listen to people's concerns about getting vaccinated themselves or about their families getting vaccinated. It is not enough for us to play mother and say it is for their own good, or to play teacher or doctor and say we know what is best and that it is in their interest. Getting some people to take this vaccine is about hearts as well as minds. It is about how people feel as well as how they think. Many different issues can be conflated. Previous negative experiences, be they one's own or somebody else's, can have an impact on take-up. We have to avoid being judgmental, even though there is a great temptation, and at the same time strongly encourage take-up of the vaccine. A way to give a good example is by getting vaccinated oneself. Social influencers will all play an important role. Active listening matters, and active engagement is really important. We will not change some people's minds by insisting on our superior knowledge. If I do so, or anybody else does so, it only pushes people to find another reason to dig in and reject the viewpoint. We have to be careful not to fall into that trap.
We are in this together. The approach has worked to a large extent up to now. It can continue to do so. People make up their own minds on vaccination for various reasons. There is no hierarchy of reasons. Clear, simple and straightforward information on all aspects of the vaccine is critical. If there is a problem, large or small, as there will be, people should be informed. People's trust is gained by always telling them how it is. If the Minister does this, we will not spend hours in this Chamber or in other fora trying to get to the reality of the situation. "Transparency" is a lovely word but, in reality, if we practice it, it engenders trust. We can do this well. I wish the Minister and all involved in this endeavour the very best.
I listened to the Minister's speech, including his optimistic opening and his worrying conclusions. When I hear that the R number is 1.2 or more, I become very concerned. As the Minister said, we need to mind each other. To that, I add that by minding each other, we mind ourselves.