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U.K. Begins Mass Vaccination Against The Coronavirus

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A very long way from Coventry, England, where this morning at 6:31 local time, the Western world took a momentous step in the battle against the coronavirus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAY PARSONS: All done.

(APPLAUSE)

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, the United Kingdom became the first Western country to begin a mass vaccination campaign. The very first dose went to Margaret Keenan, a 90-year-old grandmother from Northern Ireland. When she was told she would be the first, she thought it was a joke. Afterward, a nurse wheeled her down the hospital hallway, and she was met with applause from health care workers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARGARET KEENAN: It's just so strange and so wonderful, really. Yeah. So this is for a good cause, so I'm so pleased to have it done.

CHANG: Last week, British regulators gave final approval to the vaccine created by Pfizer and BioNTech. And, today, the National Health Service began vaccinating some of the country's highest-priority groups - people over 80 years old and health care workers treating COVID patients.

SHAPIRO: The U.K. is the worst-hit country in Europe. More than 62,000 people have died there. The occasion moved the country's Secretary of Health Matt Hancock to wipe away tears during a live TV interview. He called today V Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD MORNING BRITAIN")

MATT HANCOCK: It seems so simple, having a jab in your arm. But that will protect Margaret, and it'll protect the people around her. And if we manage to do that for everybody who's vulnerable to this disease, then we can move on.

CHANG: Months of treating COVID patients have taken their toll on health care workers - flipping patients onto their stomachs, intubating them, holding the phone for video calls with isolated family members. May Parsons was the nurse who gave today's historic shot. And afterwards, she told reporters that the mood at her hospital has lifted in a big way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PARSONS: It's been all excitement. And the sense of pride that we could actually provide this vaccination to our patient is something that is so positive amongst the negative things that's happened this year.

SHAPIRO: Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the vaccination campaign a shot in the arm for the whole nation. But he and other health officials urged people to keep following safety recommendations while the U.K. rolls out the vaccine more widely, a process that will take months.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: In Scotland, Northern Ireland, in Wales, in England, people are having the vaccine for the first time. And it will gradually make a huge, huge difference. But I stress gradually because, you know, we're not there yet. We haven't defeated this virus yet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.