How delays and confusion hit the vaccination helpline, just when the elderly need it most
It was set up by the NHS to help direct the elderly and vulnerable to the nearest vaccination centre as quickly as possible.
But, the 119 vaccination helpline has been accused of giving out confusing and “robotic” advice and even cutting off housebound pensioners in the middle of their calls.
Launched as part of the national Test and Trace system in May, the 119 number has been deluged by calls in recent weeks after an NHS letter invited over-80s to call and book appointments at the nearest mega-centre, sometimes up to 30 miles away.
The letter sent to 150,000 pensioners had to be hastily rewritten, however, after failing to make clear that those unable to make the journey could still wait to be vaccinated by their GP.
And when panicked pensioners or their carers called the helpline, fearing they might miss out on a jab, the line repeatedly went dead, adding to their distress.
Margaret Crosby, a 54-year-old councillor in Sunderland, called the 119 number on behalf of her 83-year-old mother Elizabeth, who uses a wheelchair and has rarely left her home since April.
“You couldn’t speak to an actual operator, it seemed. All we got was a robotic voice, and we just gave up,” Ms Crosby said. “It was very confusing and distressing for my mother, and for me.”
Another carer, who did not wish to be named, said: “It’s absolutely rubbish. The line rings once, then it cuts you off. I tried three or four times on Thursday.
“I only learned this morning that my mother could actually wait to see her GP. But we spent three days in a complete panic.”
People who received 1st dose of vaccine
Other pensioners said they had tried to get through to operators without success, while some had struggled to use the helpline to cancel appointments with days to spare.
“My 92-year-old and severely disabled mother was contacted to have her vaccination at the Epsom Downs Racecourse vaccination hub,” one relative wrote on social media.
“My sister decided, having made the appointment, that my mother’s condition was such that to take her was not going to be a good idea. On Sunday, she started trying to cancel the appointment rather than join the "no show" tendency that is commonplace with many regarding the NHS.
“You cannot believe the Herculean efforts over the telephone she has been through beginning on Sunday and finally managing this apparently simple task, which was achieved only on Tuesday.”
Many of the elderly people unable to make the journey are housebound, with little idea of when someone might turn up at their door to administer the vaccine.
Supplies of the Oxford vaccine are still thin on the ground in many places, while the frozen Pfizer vaccine cannot be taken door-to-door. NHS guidance warns housebound people that they “may have to wait for supply of the right type of vaccine".
In some cases, GPs have even told housebound pensioners that if they are driven by a carer to a mass vaccination centre, they may lose their place on the list of patients who need to be treated in their own homes.
Vaccinations by UK region
Julia Masters, 58, has been trying to find out when her 91-year-old father Henry Masters can receive the jab for weeks.
“He’s extremely anxious. He’s had heart failure and kidney disease, so you’d think he’d be near the top of the list. I’ve tried to find out who’s coming to vaccinate him but no one seems to know. The district nurses say the GPs are doing it, but the surgery says they have no idea when the vaccine is coming.
“I can’t take him to the vaccination centre because the GP said if he was able to go, he would be taken off the housebound patient list.
“There’s people down the road that have been vaccinated that are less vulnerable. And he doesn’t understand why they’ve been dealt with and he hasn’t.
“There will be many others in this desperate situation, particularly those who live on their own.”
Kay Keane, director of the Institute of General Practice Management, which represents GP practices, said many were planning to start vaccinating housebound people in the coming days.
“Of course we’d like to do the housebound people first, but you can’t with Pfizer, and the Oxford supply isn’t there at the moment,” she said.
“There are different speeds around the country. At my practice, for example, we’re doing out housebound patients in the next couple of weeks.
“So people worrying should rest assured that we are coming to vaccinate them. It’s just taken a little longer than we’d like.”
An NHS spokesman denied there had been any technical problems with the service, but said callers would have to wait longer at busier times of day.
“The vaccines helpline is not reporting any technical problems – people are advised that during peak times they may need to wait slightly longer than usual, or that they can call back later in the day," they said.