Meet the local heroes behind the Covid vaccines and boosters in Somerset

Rory handing out masks to the public - kitchen tongs come into play!

Rory handing out masks to the public - kitchen tongs come into play! - Credit: Sue Tilleray

What inspires people of different ages, of different personal situations and backgrounds, of different skill sets and experiences to volunteer during a time of crisis? Julie O'Donnell finds out.

Our current coronavirus pandemic has provided a new set of challenges, and Somerset Rotarians have been there once again, ‘at the coal-face’. So, what was it that brought them out of the hibernation of lockdown, in their hundreds across the county, to assist at the biggest mass vaccination programme we’ve had, and what impact did it have on the Somerset community? 

Nicki Scott, International Director of Rotary in Great Britain and Ireland, says: ‘I wasn’t in the least bit surprised that so many of our Rotarians stepped up to the plate. It’s in our culture – our very DNA – to give our time to deserving causes.'

Rotarians are accustomed to helping out with vaccination campaigns, such as key involvement worldwide in the drive to eradicate polio. Many have in the past gone overseas to administer the vaccine, and most have been involved in raising money for this important cause. All this reflects the motto: ‘Service above Self’.

Richard Goring of Taunton Vale Rotary Club reflects: ‘We all have a part to play in getting society back to a more ‘normal’ pattern of life. Different agencies are often criticised in this country for a lack of joined-up thinking, but I’ve seen great collaboration and communication.'

Staff in the NHS, local authority staff seconded to lead on logistics such as rotas and operational flow, volunteers who at the beginning turned up with everything from traffic cones to tents to try and keep those queuing undercover, and then volunteers such as local street pastors, altruistic individuals or representatives of organisations such as Rotary – all pulled together. 

The roles carried out by Rotarians have been varied, like car parking, asking relevant questions about covid symptoms, handing out masks, sanitising, and guiding people through the vaccination stages.

Helping to vaccinate the community

Helping to vaccinate the community - Credit: Sue Tilleray

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Midsomer and Radstock Rotary Club’s Loraine Candy highlights that at the beginning of the vaccination campaign, her club provided solutions to some emerging logistical problems. ‘We contacted a local signage company and they turned around the order within a day, then volunteers put up signage on lamp-posts. It was rewarding to discover there were no more complaints from people who’d had an awful job finding the vaccination clinic.’ 

Thousands of hours volunteered across Somerset
Rotarians in many of the 47 Rotary clubs in this district have given their time freely. Rotarian Tim Reed, for example, has volunteered for more than 90 shifts.

And since the start of the pandemic, District Governor Nominee for 2022/23, Ric Canham, volunteering at vaccination clinics and swabbing stations for students’ tests on their return to school, has clocked up an amazing 6,961 hours!

It’s worth noting that not all Rotary volunteers are retired – a misconception that some members of the public appear to have. Many are working vaccination clinic shifts around their full-time work commitments. 

Inspiring others to become involved
Friends and family have become involved because of knowing Rotarians ‘doing their bit’, and some because of being furloughed previously, with time on their hands. 

‘So many patients come up and thank us afterwards,’ is the takeaway memory for Emma Clasby, a Rotarian’s daughter. 'We were very lucky in being able to go out and about during difficult times, and as a hairdresser I’d missed talking to my customers.’

Penny Underwood, who helps at Bruton and Wincanton centres, adds: ‘There is quite a buzz at times in the queues (which are thankfully short for most, thanks to the smooth operations put in place). I’ve learned a great deal more about our NHS. And I feel extremely proud – of the NHS, and of other partners and Rotary’s key role.’

‘We can all help others, no matter how small the contribution’
Rory O’Donnell, who was District 1200 Governor in 2020/21, says. ‘I think the volunteering effort has demonstrated to non-Rotarians and the younger generation that we can all help others, no matter how small the contribution, and that this particular effort truly makes a difference at this historic moment in time. 

Is Rotary’s role in Somerset’s vaccination clinics over now?  
Dr Michael Fernando is the current District 1200 Governor and is a consultant paediatrician at Yeovil District Hospital. As a medic in a busy general hospital, he has seen the pandemic from numerous perspectives.

‘Rotary’s involvement in the first tranche of vaccination clinics was amazing – but so typical of our organisation. I honestly don’t think the clinics could have operated so successfully without the help of so many volunteers – everyone pulling together and so focused on ultimately helping to alleviate the pressure on the NHS. However, we have the booster vaccination clinics and the regular flu jabs, so yes, there’s still a job to do. And Rotary is still out there!’

Anyone interested in joining Rotary in Somerset, whether that be via the clubs in your local area, or the online Rotary without Borders, can email ric.canham@btinternet.com