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How a bungled announcement led to mass confusion about Ireland's vaccination centres

It emerged after the announcement of 37 locations that a number of the venues were not fully confirmed.

Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

MONDAY SHOULD HAVE been all about the beginning of Ireland’s vaccine roll-out to those aged over 70, as the programme moving out into the community and started the third phase of the immunisation plan.

Instead, the focus shifted to a list of 37 planned locations for mass vaccination centres – with more questions than answers arising about when and how they will be used.

Some of these venues still have not had their contracts finalised and were caught off guard by the announcement. And a failure to mention the significant role GP surgeries will still play in this phase of the vaccination programme – or when any of this will even begin – caused confusion and worry.

This government’s communications strategy has come under repeated criticism in recent months – as kite-flying and ill-timed leaks about restrictions and other measures frustrate an exhausted population.

So it was the wrong moment to bungle an announcement.

On Monday morning Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly held a background briefing on the vaccination programme, with only health correspondents invited.

TheJournal.ie, which, like many other Irish media organisations, does not have a health correspondent – but has extensively covered the pandemic and vaccination roll-out – did not receive an invitation. Government spokespeople have assured media outlets this will not happen again.

As it turned out, there was little to miss at the exclusive briefing by the minister.

A list of locations for mass vaccination centres was released, with some basic details about how they will be used. Here’s the list:

  • Carlow – The Seven Oaks Hotel – Athy Road, Carlow
  • Cavan – Kilmore Hotel – Dublin Road, Kilgarry
  • Clare – West County Hotel – Limerick Road, Ennis
  • Cork – Páirc Uí Chaoimh – The Marina, Cork city
  • Cork -  City Hall Cork – City Hall, Anglesea Street, Cork city
  • Cork - MTU Campus Melbourn Building - Melbourn Rd, Bishopstown, Cork
  • Cork - Bantry PCC - Bantry, Co. Cork
  • Cork - Mallow GAA Club - Mallow GAA Club,Carrigoon, Co. Cork
  • Donegal - Letterkenny Institute of Technology - Port Road, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal
  • Dublin - Aviva Stadium - Landsdowne Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4
  • Dublin - Citywest Convention Centre - Citywest Hotel, Garters Lane, Saggart, Co. Dublin
  • Dublin - Helix Theatre DCU – DCU Santry
  • Dublin – TU Dublin Campus – Grangegorman
  • Galway - Galway Racecourse – Ballbrit, Galway
  • Kerry – Killarney Sports and Leisure Centre  -Bypass Road, Killarney, Co Kerry
  • Kerry – Kerry Sports Academy – North Campus, Dromtacker, Tralee, Co Kerry
  • Kildare – Punchestown Racecourse – Punchestown, Naas, Co Kildare
  • Kilkenny – Cillin Hill Conference Centre – Dublin Road, Leggettsrath, Kilkenny
  • Laois – Midlands Park Hotel – Jessop St., Portlaoise, Co Laois
  • Leitrim – Primary Care Centre – Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim
  • Limerick – Radisson Hotel – Ennis Road, Limerick
  • Longford – Longford Slashers GAA – Longford Town
  • Louth – Fairways Hotel – Dublin Rd, Haggardstown, Dundalk, Co Louth
  • Mayo -  Breaffy House Resort – Breaffy, Castlebar, Co Mayo
  • Meath – Simonstown GAA Club Navan – Simmonstown Gales GAA Co Meath
  • Monaghan – Hillgrove Hotel – Old Armagh Rd, Latlorcan, Monaghan
  • Offaly – Faithful Field GAA Centre – Kilcormac, Tullamore, Co Offaly
  • Roscommon -  Abbey Hotel – Galway Road, Co Roscommon
  • Sligo – Sligo IT Sports Arena – Sligo IT, Ash Ln, Bellanode, Co Sligo
  • Tipperary – Abbeycourt Hotel – Nenagh, Co Tipperary
  • Tipperary-  The Clonmel Park Hotel – Poppyfields, Cahir Road, Clonmel, Co Tipperary
  • Waterford – WIT Arena – WIT Sports Campus,Carriagnore, Waterford
  • Westmeath – International Arena AIT – Dublin Road, Athlone, Co Westmeath
  • Westmeath – Bloomfield House Hotel – Mullingar, Co Westmeath
  • Wexford – Riverside Hotel Enniscorthy – The Promenade, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford
  • Wicklow – Arklow Bay Hotel and Conference Centre – Sea Rd, Ferrybank, Arklow, Co Wicklow
  • Wicklow – Charlesland Golf Club – Greystones, Co Wicklow

Immediately issues were raised with some of the venues on the list. For a start, anyone with an appointment at the Radisson Hotel in Limerick – or is it actually in Co Clare? – would have to walk across a busy four-lane dual carriageway if they did not drive and relied on public transport to get there. 

Sinn Féin’s health spokesperson David Cullinane on Monday said that while the announcement of locations marked progress, “detail is still lacking”.

“There is no location in Limerick city, and counties with a very wide population spread such as Donegal only have one,” he pointed out. “We need to build on this, and the criteria used in the decision making should be transparent.

“This process and the choice of locations should be explained very clearly.”

Maybe it was explained clearly at the minister’s technical briefing on Monday morning. 

But in the press release issued by his department detailing the 37 locations, there was no emphasis on the large role GP surgeries and smaller local vaccination hubs will play whenever the mass roll-out begins.

The only mention of general practice was this:

“While currently vaccines are being administered in healthcare settings and by GPs, many people will be offered their vaccination in these centres, having self-registered online.”

Later in the week HSE CEO Paul Reid made it clear that there will be several options, depending on people’s circumstances and locations, when the vaccination programme fully ramps up.

“Vaccination centres are one of a range of locations where we’ll be delivering the vaccine including GP clinics, including buddying up clinics [multiple GPs from an area using one larger surgery], including the centres that we have going live this weekend,” he said.

“And also vaccination centres, both bigger regional ones and smaller local ones around the country.”

Controversy over the communications strategy and confusion about how people will get to these 37 centres was followed on Tuesday by revelations that contracts have not been finalised for all of these centres and some venues had not been expecting the minister’s announcement.

The Seven Oaks Hotel in Carlow said that while it would be delighted to play a role in the vaccination roll-out and it had received enquiries from the HSE, the use of the venue had not been confirmed.

A spokesperson for the minister told TheJournal.ie the hotel in Carlow – announced as one of the locations just the day before – had been identified as a possible location but in recent days, due to a change in specifications, it was deemed too small. 

Later that day the HSE confirmed a change to the location. Instead the sports hall at Carlow IT will be used because it offers better car parking facilities, access and internal space. 

Two other venues – Charlesland Golf Club in Wicklow and The Bloomfield House Hotel in Westmeath – told this publication that full confirmation had not been received.

Gabriel Dooley, the estate agent who has been managing the plans for Charlesland Golf Club, told TheJournal.ie that the announcement had been a surprise.

“Nothing was run by the owners or us before they published the list,” he said.

He said that while planning for the vaccination centre is at an advanced stage and discussions with suppliers are ongoing, “the deal hasn’t been finalised”.

The list released on Monday stated that contracts for just two of the venues were yet to be finalised, but this related to two other venues; Longford Slashers GAA and Faithful Field GAA Centre.

Health officials have said the list is subject to change, with the HSE’s Paul Reid this week stressing “that will be the nature of the programme, that’s the nature of the adaptability that we have to show”.

How will they work?

While there is still no set timeline for the full roll-out of these vaccination centres, there are a few things we do know about them.

They were chosen locally based on a number of factors including population catchment, travel and distance time (aim of 30-40 minutes), parking and the availability of the space for a sustained period of time.

The larger centres will have 30 to 50 booths, delivering 3,000 to 5,000 vaccines per day and working on a 12-hour shift basis. Smaller centres will have 10 to 12 booths and will deliver 1,000 to 2,000 vaccines per day.

While many people will receive their vaccine in these centres, many others will be able to go to a local GP surgery for their jab. It is also expected that pharmacists will play a role, though this is another uncertain element of the plan. 

The Irish Pharmacy Union has said the government has agreed funding for community pharmacies to administer vaccines.

However it told TheJournal.ie that it has “no clear details on exactly how and when we will be able to start providing a vaccination service to vulnerable patients and the broader public.”

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In the coming months, people will be able to self-register online to go to a centre to receive their vaccine. This system is not yet available and further details are expected as we move into the second quarter of the year. 

The government is expecting all those over the age of 70 will be fully vaccinated by mid-May. It is not clear whether the majority of these centres will be open by the time the vaccination programme moves to the fifth group, those aged 65-69.

But afterwards it will be the turn of those aged 18-64 who have conditions that put them at risk and HSE officials this week indicated that vaccination centres will be used for this cohort.

As we move into the second quarter of the year, the government – and the European Commission – has assured people that there will be a significant increase in the level of vaccine supply. Currently there are three vaccines that can be used once mass vaccination centres and the wider roll-out gets underway; the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, the Moderna vaccine and the AstraZeneca jab.

It is expected that the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine will be approved by the EMA in the coming weeks and will also be available in Ireland in the second quarter of the year.

‘We are ready for the next phase’

Officials and ministers have pointed to supply as the main issue with the vaccination programme, as 94% of available vaccines are being administered.

And yesterday the Taoiseach rejected the suggestion that the public’s frustration about the management of the pandemic was down to a communications problem.

In an interview with TheJournal.ie he said:

“No, I just think it’s the fact that people are facing into a significant period of restrictions,” he said. “It’s understandably causing a lot of upset and worry and concern.”

He said the news on vaccination centres was given to indicate to people that “we are ready and prepared for the mass vaccination phase of the roll-out programme”.

“We have always made it clear that GP surgeries would be the key area, we had already announced that for over 70s.

“And I think vaccination centres are themselves evidence that the HSE is developing very strong capacity, it demonstrates that when we need to be significantly increasing the level of vaccinations – for example when we have 250,000 per week, one million per month – in addition to GPs and pharmacies we will have vaccination centres.”

Martin said as the supply of vaccine doses increases and the roll-out gains momentum, this may give the government “better choices” when it comes to decisions on restrictions.

It looks likely that strict measures will remain in place at least until the middle of April as the government has said it needs to be cautious about easing restrictions while it rolls out the immunisation programme.

Martin told TheJournal.ie that the phased re-opening of schools and the impact this has on levels of transmission across the country will inform any further relaxation of measures.

Officials will be closely monitoring the school re-opening to assess the threat posed by the new and more transmissible variant to the progress that has been made since the start of the year.

“NPHET are advising Monday, government will decide on Tuesday in relation to the restrictions, but they will be reviewed on a regular basis and in particular, depending on the impact of the first phase of the reopening, which is the schools at the beginning of March [it will be the] middle of March before the reviews,” Martin said.

“It will be kept under constant review, particularly as the vaccination programme rolls out and perhaps gives us better choices. So nothing is set in stone.”

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