Caroline Roberts |

‘The sense of positivity is huge, and it really feels like a first step towards getting back to a more normal life’

The drive to vaccinate around 15 million of the country’s most vulnerable population against COVID-19 by mid-February continues apace. Caroline Roberts talks to members of the rowing community who are playing key parts in the rollout

Trainee neurosurgeon and Agecroft Rowing Club member, Catherine Pringle – pictured below – took time out from her PhD to volunteer at one of the first vaccine clinics held at her Manchester hospital.

“We were vaccinating the over-80s, clinically vulnerable hospital staff, and lots of care home workers,” she explains. “We even had two nuns come along.”


Ensuring the clinic runs smoothly is the major challenge, adds Catherine. “With the Pfizer vaccine, you can draw up five doses from a vial, so you have to make sure you have five people already screened and waiting. Then there’s the logistics of getting everyone and their carers in and out in a safe manner and making sure they have appointments for the second dose.

“The whole community came together… including a few members of Grosvenor RC [who were] standing out in the cold directing patients”

“It was just one of those really good examples of how the NHS can pull together for something like this. All the people running that clinic were from different departments within the Trust and volunteered to come and help out in their own free time.”

Like all rowers, she can’t wait to get back on the water and racing again. “Agecroft Head is usually a big event, but in October we did manage to put on a small invitational head with only three clubs. Ironically, I couldn’t do it as I was self-isolating!”

Other rowing medics have been running vaccination hubs in the community.

Jeremy Perkins is a GP in Neston, near Chester, and is a member of the city’s Grosvenor Rowing Club. As Clinical Director of the Neston & Willaston Primary Care Network, he’s been heavily involved in organising the vaccine campaign in the area. “It’s been a challenge,” he says, “especially as patients have to wait 15 minutes after receiving the vaccine to ensure there’s no reaction. Many of these frail and vulnerable patients hadn’t been out for months and were very weak.”


But the experience has been incredibly uplifting, he adds. “The whole community came together with a huge team of volunteers, including a few members of Grosvenor RC, standing out in the cold directing patients, helping the frail and making traffic aware of the vaccination site.

“The sense of positivity is huge, and it really feels like a first step towards getting back to a more normal life.”


Every day is also a step closer to getting back on the river.

“I’ve missed rowing terribly this year, but as a squad we have regular Zoom rowing machine sessions as well as social sessions, such as quizzes and even wine tastings. This has helped a lot though it’s not the same as a lovely row on the Dee. The physical and social aspects of rowing are massively important to me for relaxing after work and keeping a healthy work-life balance.” 

“The active, selfless and compassionate commitment of people like Chris is on a different scale in lifting the spirits and motivation of our staff”

The rowing community has provided practical help too. When members of Tideway Scullers School (TSS), based in Chiswick, West London, heard that the local vaccine campaign was urgently in need of gazebos, they didn’t hesitate to offer theirs.

“It transpired that the surgery in Barnes had vaccinations to do in the next two days and needed somewhere dry for the elderly patients to sit afterwards, but had no space,” explains TSS Vice President, Chris Williams.

“My son, Jonathan, and I lugged our two gazebos into the back of my car, took them over and put them up on 15 December. It was fortunate we did as the first day of vaccinations was very wet.

“We said they could keep them over Christmas as we’d weighted them down well and tied them to the fence, so thought they’d be secure. Unfortunately, the big storm over Christmas was more than the gazebos could stand and they ended up in a tangled mess.

“We’ve managed to repair the frames and a couple of the panels by buying spare parts, and we’ll be back in business shortly. If there are any more storms imminent, we’ll take them down this time!”

Medics running the vaccination centre were hugely grateful for their help, says Dr Patrick Gibson, GP borough lead for Richmond.

“The pressure of trying to deliver healthcare in the last 12 months has been immense and while Thursday clapping was touching, the active, selfless and compassionate commitment of people like Chris is on a different scale in lifting the spirits and motivation of our staff.”


Twice a week, Pippa Harrison, Education and Training Coordinator at British Rowing, rushes off after work to do a four-hour shift at her local vaccination hub, and then does another shift over the weekend. The role involves inputting patient data when they arrive, so that vaccinators can pull it up quickly, she explains.

“The elderly patients seem to be happy to get out of the house and see other people. It’s really nice to be part of a positive change and feel like what we’re doing is having a direct impact, especially for the people I see come in whose chances of getting seriously ill are now massively reduced.”

The member of Marlow Rowing Club even skips some of her training sessions, so she can volunteer.

“I live with two other rowers and the club gave us a rowing machine for our garage, so we’re very lucky. Our squad trains four or five times a week on Zoom – it’s good to see everybody. I did talk to my coach about missing the sessions and he said not to worry, and to just go and volunteer.”

So, despite what your coach might tell you, there are some things more important than training.