MP’s Notebook: Vaccines bring hope

As a hard and difficult year draws to a close, we are all desperately hoping that 2021 will be different. Well, that hope appears to have been answered. Three new ‘stars’ have appeared in the dark winter sky in the form of coronavirus vaccines.

It is extraordinary that they have been developed so quickly and we all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the scientists and the volunteers who took part in thousands of trials. At the time of writing, we are still awaiting the go-ahead from the regulators, but assuming it happens, a lot of work in the city is already underway to prepare for a mass vaccination programme.

It seems that the vaccine will be offered first to people who live in care homes and care home staff, those aged 80 and over and health and social care workers.

Sadly, there are anti-vaccination conspiracy theories. One popular one is that governments want to use the vaccine to inject us with microchips! It’s nonsense of course, but many of us remember the worry that was created by the suggestion that the MMR vaccine caused autism. The study was eventually discredited and the doctor responsible struck off, but the damage had been done.

Vaccinations have saved millions of lives since Edward Jenner developed the first successful vaccine in 1796 when he inoculated a 13 year old boy and demonstrated immunity to smallpox. In the last 30 years enormous strides have been made in eliminating polio through vaccination programmes. There are now just three countries left where it still exists.

Nevertheless, some people may have concerns or questions and it is really important that as much information as possible is made available so that people can weigh up the facts and seek the advice of their GP.

Vaccination against coronavirus will not be compulsory – and nor should it be – but the more of us who have it the better the chance that we will defeat the virus. So, I for one will be queuing with my sleeve rolled up when they eventually get around to people of my age.

With Christmas rapidly approaching, the relaxation in the rules for 5 days over the festive season will be welcomed by families who haven’t been able to see loved ones for far too long. But at the same time, as the ‘nation’s GP’ Professor Chris Whitty said recently, we all have a responsibility to safeguard the health of others and in particular of elderly relatives.

Right now discussions are going on within families about how to do this. Many will seize the opportunity to get together, but others may decide that the much-loved Christmas meal with all the generations will have to wait until next year, while for now they will go for a walk in the park or eat mince pies outside where the risk of infection is lower.

Anyway, however you and those you love choose to celebrate this special time, I would like to wish you all the best for the year ahead. And to those of you who have lost loved ones, whether to coronavirus or some other cause, we are thinking of you especially.

I am also sure that you will wish to join me in thanking all of those people who this year have done so much for so long in such difficult circumstances to support us whether by just going to work, delivering food parcels, collecting the bins, driving the buses, cleaning the streets, teaching a class of 7 year olds, caring for very sick patients in the LGI and Jimmy’s, or playing a part in inventing one of the vaccines that we will come to know well next year.

All of this has been a triumph of compassion and of the human spirit. It represents the best of us. And it is exactly these qualities that fill me with hope that next year will indeed be better.

Best wishes, Hilary Benn.