KNOCKING COVID FOR 6, AT THE HOME OF CRICKET – A CONVERSATION WITH DR. RISHI CHOPRA
Updated: Jan 21
Just over a year ago English cricket, much like all sport across the world, fell silent. Scoreboards across the country stopped ticking and, for the first time since World War II, there was to be no English domestic county cricket action. The one-off Bob Willis Trophy, scheduled to start in August 2020, offered county cricket fans a much-needed sense of normality. A week prior to its start, I was lucky enough to be one of the 1,000 fans allowed into The Oval for a socially distanced test event. I got a taste of what live sport was like again, but a taste is all it would be. The following week, Boris Johnson would announce that crowds would not be able to attend live sporting events, due to the increasing COVID-19 infection rates, thus resulting in English cricket returning to empty stadiums.
Fast forward to October 31st 2020 and the U.K. was firmly in the middle of its second wave of COVID-19 infections. Lockdown two would seamlessly merge into lockdown three, with the third and most significant wave of infections afoot. Before we knew it, we were all in for a bleak winter. But from darkness comes light and, in November 2020, news of a vaccine emerged. With confirmation that it would be ready to roll out in the first week of December the daunting task of what was at hand became a reality for medical professionals across the country. All of a sudden it was “Go. Go. Go! Work it out. How are you going to do it?” says Dr. Rishi Chopra, a GP based at Paddington Green Health Centre and Clinical Director for Regent Health Primary Care Network. A cricket fan and locally based GP to Lord’s Cricket Ground., Dr. Chopra was one of the leads for the COVID-19 vaccination programme in the Borough of Westminster. Luckily, he and his colleagues had already been planning for the year’s Flu campaign, which they were intending on doing at scale. Lord’s cricket ground, affectionately known as the Home of Cricket, had been earmarked as an ideal location. With ample space for social distancing and extremely accommodating staff, using one of the most prestigious sporting venues in the country as a mass vaccination site was a no-brainer. “They were so hospitable and so generous,” Dr. Chopra says. “They basically said ‘what do you need?’ They gave us an empty room. We kitted it out. They gave us office space. We were allowed to take over their boxes.”
The foundation was laid for what would be something quite special but also, as Dr. Chopra puts it, “a mammoth task.” However, that didn’t stop the team in Westminster from doing their duty and helping the nation on the path out of a dire situation. Speak to any healthcare professional and you will find that they exude a sense of duty and responsibility, in abundance. Dr. Chopra is no different. “Of course we wanted to be involved. They’re our patients,” he says with passion.
So, from January 8th until May 12th (I happen to be speaking to Dr. Chopra the day after their last vaccination day, at Lord’s), the Home of Cricket became the home of one of the largest GP-led vaccine operations in London. The scoreboard was back up and running, but not as you’d know it. An ‘Innings’ was reclassified as the number of days they had operated. The number of vaccines administered, naturally, became the figure for ‘Runs,’ and boy were they knocking them out of the park. “At our peak, we [vaccinated] 3,200 plus in one day. Over the course of the 26 days, we did 46,000 vaccinations…it was an incredible success and everything worked so efficiently. If you were to get systems and process change people in, to try and tweak things, I don’t think they could have done it much better. We were so efficient. By the end, it was just a pleasure to watch.” I can see the smile slowly spread across Dr. Chopra’s face. The pride and significance isn’t just in the way the operation ran. But, more bedded in the importance of the work they were doing and the time at which they were doing it. Lord’s was one of the first mass vaccination sites in the country, which would mean that the cohorts they started with were the most vulnerable. “They were our most frail members of our society. We had 100-year-olds pitching up to Lord’s in -2 degrees. [Lord’s] gave us an outside booth, with wheelchair access. It was heated. It was a great way to vaccinate the vast majority of Westminster residents. It was run by local GPs. There was lots of energy…You felt you were doing something great for the community.”
I get a real sense of energy and simply hearing about the work feels extraordinary. Many times, during our conversation, I felt goosebumps. “Everyone was up for it. That first day, everyone wanted to come along,” Dr. Chopra says. “The U.K. were the first to get non-clinicians to be trained up as vaccinators. There was definite excitement.” As Dr. Chopra has already alluded to, the task at hand was not an easy one. It’s expected that the energy levels may have wavered. The medical profession suffers from burnout and fatigue at the best of times, perhaps more so than any other profession, let alone during a global pandemic. But they kept going. Rishi is clear that they couldn’t have done the job without the army of volunteers, that made up the marshals, as well as some of the vaccinators and administrators. One of the other things that helped was the location. “The backdrop of Lord’s…overlooking the pitch. When the sun came out, it comes into its own anyway. The colours of the sky on the winter mornings…I would go there and have a moment every morning, without fail. Standing in the box, overlooking the pitch. I would probably take a picture every time.”
Lord’s has now finished it’s stint, as a mass vaccination site. It goes back to being the full time ‘Home of Cricket’. However, I can imagine those who occupied its grounds during the period I mention above will remember it for a long, long, time. Dr. Chopra warmly reminisces. “From the beginning, getting there when it was dark and leaving when it was dark to now, getting there and it’s bright blue in the morning and still bright at 9pm at night, it has been phenomenal.”
A commemorative bench has since been installed outside Lord's, in recognition of the vaccination work and the dedication from the NHS, key workers and volunteers. I would also like to finish by thanking every, single, individual that helped the country get through one of the strangest and scariest periods our generation will probably ever face. Everyone that continued going to work, when were told to work from home. The delivery drivers, the shop keepers and most notably the medical professionals and NHS staff, on the ground. Your strength, your long hours, your weeks-on-end without a break, you are appreciated.
...and to one very special person in my life, you know who you are…Thank you!
KEEP UP TO DATE WITH THIS BLOG ON INSTAGRAM AT WWW.INSTAGRAM.COM/LONDONWRITINGGUY