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Britain Begins Vaccinating People Against COVID-19


This is a notable day in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. This morning, the U.K. government started giving people the new COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer.

NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt is on the line. What's happening there, Frank?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, the first one was given - the first dose was given this morning before dawn, U.K. time, in a hospital in the English city of Coventry. And, Noel, this is what it sounded like.





LANGFITT: Now, you just heard - that was Margaret Keenan. She's going to turn 91 next week, and she called this a - the best early birthday present. The second person, according to the U.K. media, Noel, who got this was one William Shakespeare...

KING: (Laughter).

LANGFITT: ...Eighty-one years old. British social media now calling it the taming of the flu, not surprisingly.

KING: (Laughter).

LANGFITT: And it's one of the few - I got to say, it's one of the few bits of COVID humor we've had in the past 10 or 11 months in this country.

The doses that William and Margaret got are the first of about 800,000 that we're going to be seeing in the coming weeks here. And it's going to go to people like them who are over 80, also who are already in the hospital or coming into the hospital for outpatient treatment. And the reason for that is, as we've talked about before, this vaccine has a special property. It has to be refrigerated or frozen it at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. So you need hospitals and that kind of infrastructure to take care of it and deliver it. And so eventually, this will move into nursing homes, which could take a little while, and finally into the population at large.

KING: OK, so first to very vulnerable people.


KING: Like the U.S., the U.K. has had very bad numbers with this virus. When could the...


KING: ...Vaccine begin to actually make a difference?

LANGFITT: Not for months, to be perfectly honest.


LANGFITT: I mean, there's - you know, there's - it's hard to roll out. It's 66 million people here. There's going to be 1 in 5 who don't even think that this is safe, we've seen from polls. So it's going to take time. Our numbers here in the United Kingdom have reduced, which has been great. There was a lockdown for about a month in England, so about 14,000 cases a day now.

On the other hand, as we move towards Christmas, there's real concern of yet another surge. There were pictures over the weekend of people outside the Harrods department store in London - tons of crowds, no masks. And so the concern is, just like in the States, it's just a roller coaster where it goes down, then people relax, and it comes back up.

KING: OK. This is a big week in the U.K. for another reason - the never-ending story, Brexit. Boris Johnson...


KING: ...Plans to go to Brussels to work out a free trade deal before the U.K. breaks away from the EU for good, which is supposed to happen at the end of this year - very soon. So if the U.K. leaves the EU without a deal, which has been one of the big open questions, how could that affect the ability of the vaccine to get into the U.K.? Like, what does this mean?

LANGFITT: You know, there seems to be some concern here about that. You know, if there is no trade deal, basically, New Year's Eve, the first - right after midnight, I guess January 1, we'll see tariffs, customs checks on the borders. Reasonable worst-case scenario - 7,000 truck backup at the port of Dover on the English Channel. And the concern would be, will you be able to get all the vaccine doses in from Belgium, where Pfizer's manufacturing them? Now, the government has actually talked about potentially using the army to airlift vaccines out of Belgium.

KING: Wow.

LANGFITT: I got to think that this is so important they're not going to let it come to that. But logistically, this is just not a good time to be walking away from the EU without any kind of trade deal.

KING: Real quick, what are the sticking points on the trade deal at this point?

LANGFITT: Well, I think the sticking points are - it comes down to things like fish of all things. Will EU fleets continue to be able to fish in U.K. waters? Also, concerns that the U.K. may try to vary enough from regulations in the EU and get an unfair advantage. Ultimately, though, this is really about control. Can the U.K. get the best deal it can? Can it be able to make its own regulations on products and still get tariff-free access to the EU, which is 450 million market of consumers.

KING: Gosh. NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.