It was 6.31am when early-riser Margaret Keenan rolled up her sleeve while sitting on a chair at her local hospital in Coventry, with the world press watching, and became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. The 90-year-old made history in a penguin Christmas sweater.
The sun had yet to rise, but a new dawn had broken in the UK’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
It only took a few seconds for Keenan, known to friends and family as Maggie, to be vaccinated. She was met with a round of applause by hospital staff as she was pushed down the hallway in a wheelchair. It marked the beginning of the largest vaccination programme the UK will ever see.
Keenan, who has four grandchildren and turns 91 next week, said: “I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against Covid-19. It’s the best early birthday present I could wish for because it means I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends in the new year after being on my own for most of the year.”
The last week has been a rollercoaster for the Keenans. Maggie’s son, Philip, 61, said they were preparing for the worst when his mother was admitted to hospital last Thursday with an infection. She was placed in intensive care.
“We’re all completely shocked,” he said from his home in Hertfordshire. “Four days ago, my mum was dying. She had a medical emergency and we had to get an ambulance to get her to Coventry hospital. My sister and I thought we were going to lose her, so I got ready to go up and say goodbye.”
But Keenan, who has been self-isolating for much of the year, made a remarkable recovery. “Two days later, my mum is talking to me on the phone and she sounds like she’s completely normal. She’s got a voice back, her breath back and it’s like a miracle, to be honest.”
Originally from Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Keenan has lived in Coventry for more than 60 years. She trained as a seamstress and window dresser, and worked for the C&A department store in Belfast, and later, Coventry. She was a hard worker, her son said, who always spent Christmas Day serving meals to those in need.
And this isn’t the first time Keenan has made British medical history. After contracting tuberculosis in the early 1950s, aged 19, she was one of the first people in the UK to receive streptomyces to treat her tuberculosis. She was treated for almost a year in Queens hospital, Belfast.
The nurse who administered Keenan’s vaccine on Tuesday, May Parson, said it was a “huge honour” to be the first in the country to deliver the vaccine to a patient. “The last few months have been tough for all of us working in the NHS, but now it feels like there is light at the end of the tunnel,” said Parson, who is originally from the Philippines and has worked in the NHS for the last 24 years.
Patients aged 80 and above who are either already attending hospital as an outpatient, or are about to be discharged after a hospital stay, will be among the first to receive the life-saving injection. Every recipient will receive a booster jab after 21 days.
The second person to be vaccinated was 81-year-old William Shakespeare, known as Bill, from Warwickshire, who said he was pleased to have received it. Shakespeare, whose name sparked a flurry of puns online, said: “It could make a difference to our lives from now on.”
After watching Shakespeare’s vaccination, the teary health secretary, Matt Hancock, told Good Morning Britain: “It’s been such a tough year for so many people. There’s William Shakespeare putting it simply for everybody: that we can get on with our lives.”
Shakespeare’s niece, Emily, 47, who lives in Tramore in Ireland, said that, like his famous namesake, her uncle’s last claim to fame lay in Stratford Upon Avon.
“He was caught speeding in Stratford in the 60s. It was the 60s version of going viral,” she said before laughing. “He would have only been young and he had this old banger of a car. He was going downwards on a hill and he was caught. It was in the local press and everything. The story follows him around wherever he goes.”
She said it was “brilliant” to see Bill, who has two sons and four grandchildren, be vaccinated after self-isolating for so long. The family said keeping in touch with him had been expensive because he did not have much internet connection and they had to rely on costly phone calls. “I’m really chuffed for him and his family and it’s a step forward to seeing them. He has been really missing them.”
And was there any connection to the playwright? Emily said she was 86% sure there was, but planned to do more research when she retired.
The day has also been emotional for NHS staff.
Claire Hobbs, a health and wellbeing practitioner and flu lead at Milton Keynes university hospital trust, was vaccinating patients on Tuesday. “It’s been a really good feeling knowing that there is something now that might give us that sense of normality back. It might give families the chance to get together with the rest of their family, without having to worry about bubbles.
“It has given a lot of people around the country hope,” she said.
She said working through the pandemic was the hardest thing she had ever done. “There’s not really a word that can describe what it’s been like for the NHS, and especially me.”
She added: “I just think it’s a really good day for Great Britain.”
The start of the vaccination programme proceeded smoothly across the UK. In Scotland, Andrew Mencnarowski, a clinical lead at NHS Lothian, was among the first to receive the vaccine, while Joanna Sloan, a sister in charge of Covid vaccination for Belfast health and social care trust, was the first in Northern Ireland. And Dr Nolan Arulraj, an acute physician at the University hospital Llandough, was one of the first people in Wales to receive it, at a vaccination centre in Cardiff. He joked that the speed of the UK rollout meant Brexit was “not all that bad”.
In London, Winston and Lorna Lucas, from Dulwich, were given the vaccination together at Guy’s hospital in London. Lorna, 81, said she felt fine afterwards, adding: “It has to be done. I have never been worried about it.”
Her husband, also 81, said: “We are at least at the start, this will at least help to slow things down because you still find the odd person doesn’t want it.”
Back in Hertfordshire, Philip Keenan was preparing to pick up his mother from the hospital on Wednesday. He describe her as a “pretty strong” woman: “She was only decorating my house last year. She was decorating my bathroom. She was 89 then.”
The day has been a whirlwind for both of them. Neither of them expected her to become an international media star, appearing in the likes of the Washington Post and Japan Times. “I just keep staring at the TV thinking: ‘This is my mum.’”