And they're off! Ripon racecourse joins UK's Covid vaccine push

Mood of quiet gratitude and relief among those receiving jabs in North Yorkshire venue’s bar

Vaccination booths
Eight vaccination booths have been set up in the racecourse bar with the aim of administering 600 jabs a day. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

In the second world war, country houses were requisitioned and turned into hospitals, schools and command headquarters. Eighty years on, a rather more eclectic selection of premises have been taken over in the push to vaccinate the UK’s most vulnerable people against Covid, including Blackpool’s Winter Gardens and the Manchester City and Plymouth Argyle football grounds.

In the North Yorkshire cathedral city of Ripon, it is the racecourse that has become a vaccination clinic. Six hundred patients a day are being vaccinated in enclosures created in the racecourse bar, a surreal experience for those used to sipping a pint of Theakston’s there, betting on horses rather than microbiology.

Sometimes people are emotional about being vaccinated against the disease that has imprisoned them in their homes for the best part of a year. But in Ripon this week the mood was of quiet gratitude and relief. Asked what he had missed in 2020, pig farmer Keith Hutchinson, 70, said, “Doing some graft.” He had a heart attack in the middle of the first lockdown and has had to stay at home recuperating.

“Not being able to work has been a real sore point. It is extremely boring when you can’t go anywhere or do anything,” he said, moaning that his wife “wouldn’t even let me push the hoover around”. He is looking forward to fettling his vintage tractor and driving it around the local lanes when lockdown lifts, and spending some cash to help local businesses. “We need to spend some of this brass we’ve saved,” he said.

Waiting the requisite 15 minutes after his jab before zooming off on his mobility scooter, John Granger, 73, had even more modest ambitions for post-Covid life. “I just want to get this bloody thing off,” he said, pulling on his mask. “Then I’d like to go to the shops and get a coffee.”

Ida Hainsworth, 71, wearing a gigantic fur hat, was visibly more excited than anyone else. Possibly because she is from South Africa and only moved to Yorkshire six months before the first lockdown with her local husband, 81-year-old George Lewis. Covid has denied her a chance to explore her new home. “We live so close to Fountains Abbey and I’ve still not seen it. I want to go to Wensleydale and Scarborough,” she said.

Ida Hainsworth
Ida Hainsworth receives her first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Some patients express their gratitude by bringing baked goods from Betty’s, the Harrogate teahouse famed for its Fat Rascal, a monster scone. Yorkshire Tea have ensured that no one goes thirsty. One amateur artist turned up clutching a cartoon showing two racehorses pursued by NHS workers brandishing syringes, with the caption: “And they are off!” The centre manager, Samantha Miles, was so tickled that she laminated eight copies, one for each vaccination booth.

Ernie Lofthouse, 93, is a well-known face around the track, famous locally for dishing out sweets instead of racing tips to those who ask his advice. A gamekeeper who only retired at 91, he had dressed smartly for his vaccination in tweed flat cap, jacket and gingham shirt. He joked with the volunteers that the whole process had been so painless, “I don’t believe you actually gave it to me”.

Ernie Lofthouse
Ernie Lofthouse arrives for his vaccination Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Like many vaccination centres around the country, the Ripon racehorse clinic is a triumph of local collaboration. Run by local GPs and nurses from 17 practices with around 160,000 patients scattered across North Yorkshire, it is marshalled by 26 local volunteers, coordinated by Harrogate & District Community Action. The fire service have also helped out, along with the local gritters, who have made a special effort to keep the driveway free of snow during the cold snap.

Dr Richard Fletcher, a Ripon GP and the clinical director of Ripon and Masham primary care network, said they were well on track to have invited all their over-70s for a jab by 15 February, with takeup very high. A local lad who took over his parents’ practice in 2015 – both of whom have come out of retirement to help vaccinate – he said it was a “huge honour and a privilege” to oversee the Ripon pop-up clinic. Nurse Karen Jones said she had barely slept before delivering her first vaccine, or the night afterwards. “It was so exciting and the patients were so grateful I barely came down,” she said.

Mo Marshall, a volunteer in a butterfly-patterned mask and hi-vis tabard, agreed. “It has been fabulous, and I am absolutely delighted to be part of it.”