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When will people affected by homelessness get a Covid-19 vaccine?

People experiencing homelessness are more likely to suffer from underlying conditions which leave them vulnerable to Covid-19. That has inspired campaigners to call for the group to be given priority access to a jab

The ongoing national lockdown means that the UK is in a race between the fast-spreading new strain and distributing the Covid-19 vaccine – and there remains a danger that those experiencing homelessness will end up left behind.

The vaccine roll-out has seen more than 23 million people given a jab since January, including 1.8m who have received a second jab as of March 10.

The aim is to get every adult in the UK vaccinated with at least one dose by the end of July.

Thanks to the national lockdown, the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths have declined in recent weeks after an acceleration during January, when the UK reported its highest daily death toll of 1,820 people.

But health experts warned of “an explosion” of cases among the homeless population in London. University College London Hospitals’ Find and Treat team recorded 127 positive Covid-19 cases in January among homeless communities, dwarfing the 85 cases reported between April and December 2020.

The rise in cases has triggered calls for people experiencing homelessness to get priority access to a vaccine. Here’s where they currently stand in the pecking order to receive a jab.

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Why are people experiencing homelessness thought to be more vulnerable to Covid-19?

People without a permanent home are at even greater risk of catching the virus, with nowhere to isolate away from others. Even going indoors is not a guarantee of safety – the hostels and communal shelters that have been the bedrock of emergency homelessness response have had to be adapted to prevent transmission of the virus.

Add to the mix the fact that people experiencing homelessness are more likely to have underlying health conditions and there is a strong argument for prioritising them for Covid-19 vaccination. On average, people experiencing homelessness die at almost half the age of the rest of the population – 46 for men and 43 for women.

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Getting to a GP also poses a problem as many rough sleepers face barriers to accessing healthcare, such as having no registered address, identification or contact with services.

There is a greater risk of misinformation about the safety of Covid-19 vaccines on the street, too. All 101 guests staying at Glass Door’s central London hostels were offered the chance to receive the Covid-19 vaccine recently, according to the charity’s senior communications manager Melissa Kerschen. She said uptake was mixed: “Conspiracy theories and misinformation needed countering. Many of our guests have a generalised distrust of institutions.”

What is the current plan for people experiencing homelessness to receive the vaccine?

People experiencing homelessness in Wales and England will be eligible for a Covid-19 jab as part of the sixth priority group alongside people aged between 16 and 65 who are in an at-risk group.

Eligibility changed in early March when the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation altered course from the age-based approach adopted during the vaccine rollout so far.

JCVI’s Covid-19 chair Professor Wei Shen Lim wrote to Matt Hancock on March 11 to give the Health Secretary the go ahead to offer vaccinations to people without a secure home in England.

Professor Lim said: “Due to current restrictions, many thousands of people who experience rough sleeping have been accommodated in emergency accommodation. This provides a unique opportunity to in-reach vaccination to a population that is otherwise often unable to access basic healthcare.” 

The “unique opportunity” presented itself thanks to the Everyone In scheme, which has seen 37,000 rough sleepers and vulnerable protected from the virus in hotels and other emergency accommodation during the pandemic.

Thousands are still being protected through the scheme – Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick called on local authorities to “redouble their efforts” to reach rough sleepers during the latest national lockdown. Those efforts included the chance to register with a GP to get the jab while staying in emergency accomodation.

Westminster’s policy shift came a day after the Welsh Government announced they would do the same. 

Health Minister Vaughan Gething said vaccinating people who are rough sleeping or in emergency or supported accommodation where they are located, without the need for an appointment will ensure “no one will be left behind”.

The Scottish Government have also confirmed thet will adopt the revised JCVI advise and will being vaccinating people experiencing homelessness from mid-April 2021.

Have people experiencing homelessness received the vaccine?

Before the announcement of priority access, homelessness charities and campaigners had been urging the UK Government to take national leadership on the issue while local authorities and homelessness healthcare partnerships acted.

Oldham councillor Dr Zahid Chauhan was behind what he dubbed the “world’s first” homeless Covid-19 vaccinations in January. The NHS doctor has since become a campaigner on the issue and penned an open letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock and urged him to call on all local authorities to press on with vaccinations. 

Dr Chauhan wrote: “We argue that implementing a holistic programme to vaccinate and support people experiencing homelessness, is an urgent public health duty for all local authorities to uphold.”

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But vaccinations for homeless people have continued to be rolled out across the country in a patchwork fashion. 

Liverpool City Council gave 500 people the jab in January through visits to emergency accommodation and hostels where people have been housed through the Everyone In scheme.

Some areas have run drop-in clinics to offer vaccinations – The Passage took that approach in Westminster.

The homelessness charity teamed up with the NHS’ North West London Clinical Commissioning Group as well as the local authority to run as a drop-in centre with no prior appointment necessary. Rough sleepers were signposted to the facility on the one-off day of action on March 3.

Vaccinations have gone mobile in other areas. Almost 200 people have been vaccinated in Brighton – with plans to reach 1,000 people over eight weeks – after Arch Healthcare hit the road with St John Ambulance, homelessness charity Justlife and Sussex Community Foundation Trust to reach rough sleepers. 

Why did campaigners ask governments to give homeless people priority access to a vaccine?

Without national leadership, there was a fear homeless people could be subject to a “postcode lottery” that could see some miss out on the life-saving jab.

Homeless Link chief executive Rick Henderson told The Big Issue: “While a growing number of local authorities are now including people experiencing homelessness in their plans for vaccination, we are concerned that a postcode lottery is in place and we would urge more local areas to take action.

“The consequences of inconsistent practice could be serious, possibly leading to virus outbreaks and increased transmission among those accessing, living and working in homeless services and accommodation.”

In other areas of the world, homelessness has been considered among the criteria for prioritising vaccinations for some time. The World Health Organization counted people experiencing homelessness among “sociodemographic groups at significantly higher risk of severe disease or death” back in November 2020 and recommended vaccination in phase two of a rollout in its guidance.

Big Issue vendors and vulnerable people everywhere must not be left behind in the race to protect society from this deadly virus with the Covid-19 vaccine.

As The Big Issue has done throughout the pandemic, vendors will be supported while they are unable to sell the magazine, with frontline teams working hard to help them with income and looking out for their welfare.

And, for vendors, receiving the prospect of receiving the vaccine would be a significant milestone on the road to returning to their pitches to sell the magazine once more.

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