Covid-19: Dancing in car park as 40-somethings get vaccinated in North

‘I finally see the vial containing the vaccine. The needle is in my arm before I realise it’

Freya McClements after getting the AstraZeneca vaccine   in Belfast.

Freya McClements after getting the AstraZeneca vaccine in Belfast.

 

The newly vaccinated are easily identifiable thanks to their broad grins and Department of Health information leaflets.

As they reunite with loved ones outside the SSE Arena in Belfast, their delight only becomes more intense. A couple grasp each other’s hands tightly, wordlessly, while those who are alone take out their phones and make a call. One woman even dances across the car park.

“This is safety”, is how one person describes it; for others, it is “freedom” and “hope”.

It feels like all those things. On Thursday, I joined almost 850,000 others in the North who have received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

A “big birthday” earlier this year made me just old enough to qualify for the latest rollout of the vaccine in Northern Ireland, which last week was extended to everyone aged between 40 and 45.

At the SSE Arena – which opened as the North’s first mass vaccination centre on March 29th – most of the people queuing for their injections are around that age; 14,000 of us booked appointments in the first two hours the system was operational last week.

Pop-up cubicles

The last time I was here was for a Killers concert; now, the people checking bags at the door have been replaced by stewards who check photo IDs and make sure everyone sanitises their hands.

Stickers on the floor mark out socially distanced queues, and lead to the arena floor (once the way in for people with standing tickets).

It resembles a field hospital. Rows of pop-up vaccination cubicles are lined up on the arena floor; I make my way from the check-in desk to a booth where a doctor takes me through a list of medical questions.

I am to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine. Unlike in the Republic where its use has been limited to the over 60s because of concerns over rare blood clots, in the North it remains in use for people over 30.

The doctor is more than happy to talk this through, and to explain the data behind it; the UK authorities’ view is that the benefits far outweigh any risks.

In the next booth I finally see the vial containing the vaccine. The needle is in my arm almost before I realise it; the injection no more than the “slight scratch” the doctor promises.

How lucky I am

I wait for the required 15 minutes on one of the chairs laid out like a school classroom at exam time, facing what was once the stage; above us, a large dashboard keeps a running total of the number of vaccines administered. D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better is blasting from the speakers.

I am well aware of how lucky I am. Friends and family in the North are already discussing the prospect of “getting back to normal”, and the announcement of significant easing of lockdown restrictions has only added to the sense that, to quote Northern Ireland’s Minister for Health, the “scales are tipping”.

“Our parents have all had it, now we’re all getting it so we can all meet as a family again at some stage,” explains Lynn Connolly from Saintfield, Co Down, who also received her vaccine on Thursday.

“It’s about freedom,” says Chris McMonagle from Derry. “The sooner everyone gets vaccinated, the better.”

“I feel privileged to get it,” emphasises Stephen Laughlin from Belfast. “There are so many around the world who have no chance of getting it any time soon, particularly in underdeveloped countries.”

Yet friends and colleagues of the same age and older who live on the other side of the Border cannot yet imagine even the prospect of getting the vaccine; in France, my 72-year-old mother is still waiting.