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Wales becomes first UK nation to offer vaccine priority to homeless people

Welsh ministers have issued new Covid-19 vaccine guidance to ensure “no one gets left behind” in race to protect everyone from the virus

Wales has become the first UK country to offer people experiencing homelessness priority access to a Covid-19 vaccine after Welsh ministers chose to deviate from official advice.

An age-based approach of determining priority, as advised by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, has so far been adopted by all four nations in the UK.

But the Welsh Government announced on Wednesday they will include people with recent experience of homelessness in the group of adults between 16 and 65 deemed to be at higher risk of Covid-19. 

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Health Minister Vaughan Gething said the greater health risks faced by those experiencing homelessness and the need to ensure “no one will be left behind” was behind the move.

Gething said: “It is as shocking as it is saddening that those who are homeless are much more likely to have a physical or mental health conditions which put them at a higher risk from the harms of Covid-19.

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“A fundamental principle of our vaccination programme is that no one will be left behind and as part of this commitment, we are already working to ensure it is as easy as possible for every eligible adult in Wales to have a coronavirus vaccine if they want one.”

The Welsh Government cited Office for National Statistics data showing life expectancy of people experiencing homelessness is as much as 38 years lower than the general population as a reason to act.

The updated guidance noted that while it was “very likely” many people who are homeless would already qualify for a vaccination as part of the fourth and sixth priority groups, there remains “a risk that some may not be known to health services” and miss out on a jab.

The first four groups were targeted for immediate priority – including key workers and people aged over 70 or with clinical vulnerabilities – while the sixth group will be targeted in the second phase of the rollout.

So far, just over one million people have been given a Covid-19 vaccine in Wales, including 190,000 who have received both doses. 

But the announcement that people who have experienced homelessness will be targeted as a priority is a significant development as it acknowledges the greater health risks faced by the group leaving them vulnerable to Covid-19.

Ministers have given the go-ahead for local authorities, housing organisations, third sector groups and homelessness support teams to vaccinate people who are rough sleeping or in emergency accommodation or supported accommodation.

The organisations will be cleared to give the jab wherever people are located rather than requiring them to attend an appointment through a GP in recognition of the fact many homeless people are not registered with health services.

Katie Dalton, the director of Welsh homelessness charity Cymorth Cymru has campaigned for the move in recent weeks. She said: “We are delighted that people experiencing homelessness are being prioritised for the Covid-19 vaccine in Wales. We have worked closely with the Welsh Government to evidence the particular risks to this population, and we are really pleased that ministers have responded through the publication of this guidance.”

There have been calls for homelessness to be recognised as a reason to receive priority access to the jab since Oldham Council became the first local authority in the country to vaccinate people experiencing homelessness in early January.

In the two months since, homelessness charities and local authority healthcare partnerships have worked to offer the jab to homeless people in Liverpool, areas of London and Essex, Brighton and other parts of the country.

But despite Oldham councillor and NHS doctor Dr Zahid Chauhan’s campaigning – including an open letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock – the Westminster Government has opted to stick with the JCVI’s guidance to vaccinate almost entirely based on age.

Dr Chauhan told The Big Issue that the Welsh Government’s move is a welcome one that must be replicated by leaders in Westminster and Scotland.

“It’s good that the Welsh Government has given homeless people priority access to the vaccine – it’s better late than never,” said Dr Chauhan, who also runs charity Homeless Friendly.

“But while it is good news, it is not good enough to stop there. The key issue now is how to set up quick outreach plans to deliver those vaccinations and to also use this opportunity to crack other historical injustices as well, such as registering people to GPs.

“I would like to see the other governments follow suit as well as publishing data on how many homeless people have been vaccinated so far.”

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