'I’ve already wasted one year. I can’t afford to waste another'

On the street where I grew up, there's little sign of vaccine hesitancy

Good morning. For our weekend read, David Barnett goes back home to Wigan to take his mum to her vaccination appointment. In a lovely report from the street where he grew up, he asks her neighbours how they are feeling about the vaccine — and the year ahead.

Vaccination has been the theme of our reporting this week. On Tuesday we revealed that headteachers in Rochdale have been warned about their staff skipping the queue by using a booking link meant for NHS workers — a story that has now been reported across the national media, including by the BBC, ITV, The Independent and The Daily Telegraph.

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By David Barnett

Peggy taps her hand against her chin. “Fed up? I'm fed up right up to here,” she says.

Peggy is 90, and she’s had her fill of being stuck inside. More than anything, it's the boredom. "My eyes have gone, my legs have gone," she says, leaning on a stick on her doorstep in Lower Ince, Wigan. I stand a good ten feet away on the pavement outside her end-of-terrace house. “There's nothing wrong with my brain,” she adds. “I've just been looking out of the window. It's so boring.”

She had her first shot of the Covid vaccine three weeks ago, and she's patiently waiting for her second jab and the prospect of things improving.

Peggy lives just off Warrington Road in Lower Ince, an area I know very well. I grew up here. I remember her from my youth — she used to tell us off if the football we were kicking about on a patch of reclaimed former pit-land bounced against her gable end.

I’ve come back home to take my own mum, Muriel, for her first vaccination. And I am curious about how her neighbours have been getting on, and what kind of information they are receiving about the vaccine. Are they being influenced by the kind of bogus information being shared in local Facebook groups? Are they hesitant about getting the jab?

The government is concerned about the spread of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories on the internet, and how they might influence people whose main source of news is social media.

That’s not Peggy though. Her daughter works for the NHS and her granddaughter is a paramedic. She has absolutely no qualms about the vaccine and no truck with anybody who tries to persuade her it's bad news. “The sooner everybody has it and we can all start to get out again the better,” she says. "I feel sorry for those people who've got absolutely no family, nobody. They need to start getting out again.”

Lower Ince is about a mile to the south of Wigan town centre. It's a predominantly white working class neighbourhood, a large housing estate spreading back from the rows of interwar terraced houses that are strung along the ribbon of Warrington Road. It’s got a higher-than-average proportion of older residents, aged 60 and up.

My mum has only just entered the world of Facebook and has had enough warnings from me not to take everything at face value. But even those people who don’t use social media get misinformation drip-fed to them the old-fashioned way — over the garden wall.  

Mum puts her pink, washable mask on for me to take her into Wigan for her jab. As she does so, she says somebody told her that three people who’ve had the vaccine got ill afterwards. She doesn’t know who they are, though.

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Before Christmas, her friend was offered the vaccine. She dithered because she was worried about what might be in it, based on something she’d heard. She lost her slot and had to wait until the New Year.

While I'm talking to Peggy, Graham a few doors down gets out of his car. He's just come back from having his jab in nearby Hindley. Graham is 72, and is a man of few words, but he says he never had any doubts about the jab. “I’m just looking forward to getting out again,” he says. “There’s no problem with the vaccine — don’t know why people would say there is. Last year was a washout for everybody. If this helps me get out to the pub again, I’m all for it.”

Wigan town centre is eerily deserted. I haven't been back for a long time. Mum has to go to the Hollowood Chemist on Mesnes Street. One of my favourite pubs, the Market Tavern, used to be on this street, along with my favourite bookshop, Smith's of Wigan, and my all-time favourite shop anywhere, Alan’s Records. They've all gone now, replaced by charity shops and takeaways.

It’s taken us longer than it should to get here. As mum bellows directions at me from the back seat, she seems to have lost the ability to distinguish left from right. Maybe the jab will solve that, too.

When we arrive, I peer through the window of the room next door to the pharmacy, where there are ranks of plastic chairs, socially-distanced, with masked people in their 70s and 80s sitting patiently on them. There are a smattering of people standing outside.

Mum is called in and I’m asked to wait outside. There’s a man in a big donkey jacket waiting, and he nods at me. “Ever have any concerns about the vaccine?” I ask, suddenly worried I sound like some kind of anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist. He looks at me in that particular Wigan way, as though I’ve just told him I don’t like pies. “Why would I?” he asks.

Rita, who lives across the road from my mum, thinks it's an odd question as well. “I had no nerves about it, no worries, nothing like that,” she says. Rita had hers two weeks ago. More than anything she's hoping things can get back to some kind of normality so she and husband Jimmy can go back to the Miners Hotel in Blackpool. They missed going in 2020 for the first time in years, and she’s not happy about the prospect of missing it again this year.

“We all need to get out," says Rita. She used to live, as a child, next door to my Mum up the road in Higher Ince. Mum’s 75 this month, Rita a few years older. "I'm going doolally,” she says. I don’t understand people who are scared of the vaccine. There's no fear of it from me. I just hope it works.”

When mum comes out, the worker who is letting the waiting people in one by one tells me they’re doing 200 vaccinations a day. The take-up is great, she says. The only issue is getting enough doses in to meet demand.

That’s also what Greater Manchester’s leaders are saying. Take-up has been good, they told reporters this week. Vaccine hesitancy hasn’t yet become a major problem. The only thing that could threaten our very fast progress is uneven supply. So far, my mum’s generation has been stoic and has followed the government’s advice. Maybe it’s my generation we should be worrying about.

Holidays in Blackpool, nights at the pub and trips to the bingo beckon for the residents of Lower Ince. As I drive away, I see Peggy standing in the window of her home. We might all be longing for the day when we can get out again, but for some more than others, time is of the essence.

“I’m 75,” says mum. “I’ve already wasted one year. I can’t afford to waste another.”

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