A couple from Oldham have become the “the world’s first” homeless people to receive a Covid-19 vaccine after the local authority kicked off their plans to give priority access to those without a secure home.
Oldham Council announced they would be giving vaccines to homeless people on January 4, ahead of any central government plans to help people experiencing homelessness, who are considered a high-risk category.
Less than 10 days later, Lee Ullha, 46, and Kelly Heney, 38, became the first people to be vaccinated under the scheme after receiving the jab at Oldham’s A Bed Every Night shelter run by charity Depaul.
The couple were made homeless at the start of the pandemic last March when they were evicted from the property they shared with a family member. Lee and Kelly spent months living in a tent in a local park before Oldham outreach service Street Angels brought them into the shelter.
Lee was overjoyed at receiving the vaccine. He said: “I can’t find the words to describe it, I’m amazed to have had it done. We were homeless a few months ago after we got evicted and walked out of the flat with basically the clothes that we had on our back, we were left with nothing. So it’s unbelievable that this has happened.”
Kelly added: “It was such a good thing to have and I am so glad to have had it. I’m over the moon to have been among the first homeless people to have had it, I feel famous!”
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Oldham councillor Dr Zahid Chauhan – a GP who has been working on the frontlines throughout the pandemic as well as running homelessness charity Homeless Friendly – has been the driving force behind plans to prioritise homeless people for the vaccine.
His work has run contrary to government guidance, where age is currently the key determining factor in who gets priority access to a vaccine, following recommendations from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
Last week a Government spokesperson told The Big Issue: “This advice is put forward by independent experts and has been developed with the clear aim of preventing as many deaths as possible, and protecting the health and social care system.”
The Government hopes to vaccinate the first four priority categories — including those aged over 80 and key workers, totalling 13 million people — by mid-February. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Tuesday around 2.3 million people have already received the vaccine.
But Dr Chauhan used the landmark first homelessness vaccination to reiterate his call for similar action to be taken at national level.
Oldham Council’s cabinet member for health and social care Dr Chauhan told The Big Issue: “We believe we are the first in the country and probably the first in the world to vaccinate homeless people.
“It’s important to vaccinate homeless people. Not just from the point of view of their health but from the wider health and social care point of view too.
“But it’s also our British values of helping people when they need help, especially when they are the most vulnerable people in our society.
“I am urging again for the Government to put these people on a priority list for the vaccine. I am pleased that we came together locally to implement this policy and vaccinate these people today and we will carry on doing that.”
Dr Zauhan told The Big Issue that there was a strong case to give homeless people priority access to the vaccine to not only protect them from the deadly virus but to also protect others and minimise the impact on the NHS as Covid-19 cases soar across the UK.
We all understand that every single second matters in these people’s lives and we didn’t want to delay and waste time
Since Oldham Council greenlit the plans to prioritise homeless people, the authority has joined forces with local healthcare group Oldham Cares, the voluntary sector and homelessness charities Depaul and Homeless Friendly to prepare to roll out vaccinations.
Dr Zauhan added: “We all understand that every single second matters in these people’s lives and we didn’t want to delay and waste time.
“We have a history in Oldham of caring and being compassionate to people who need our help. It’s no more difficult than vaccinating the rest of the population.”
Both Lee and Kelly urged people to get the vaccine after they were given the jab today, insisting that the prospect of catching the virus was “scary” while living on the streets.
Lee said: “Covid is a scary thing and I have been worried about catching the virus. It’s a weight off my mind to get the vaccine. Have it done as soon as you can.”
Meanwhile, calls for frontline workers who support homeless people to also receive priority access to vaccination have also been heard.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick wrote to local authorities at the end of last week confirming that “frontline social care workers directly working with people clinically vulnerable to COVID-19 are on the JCVI priority list for vaccination”. The cabinet minister encouraged councils to “look at those working in homeless settings to see if they meet the criteria”.
Jenrick also paid tribute to the local government response to Covid-19 in the letter. He said: “There is much to be proud of in how local government has responded to COVID-19, but our work on rough sleeping stands out. Indeed it is widely regarded as amongst the most impressive responses of any major country”
The national membership group for frontline services Homeless Link had been campaigning in recent weeks on the need for homelessness workers to be vaccinated against Covid-19 and told The Big Issue “there is no question of this need for priority status” for the people they support too.