image captionMargaret Austin was the first to receive the vaccine at Robertson House, Stevenage
A conference centre in Hertfordshire is one of seven sites around England where mass vaccinations are taking place in the fight against Covid-19. How are the sites working and what was it like for people receiving the jab?
Margaret Austin has left her house for the first time in six months.
After receiving an invitation letter on Saturday, the 86-year-old was first in the queue at Robertson House in Stevenage on Monday morning.
Ms Austin, who lives 19 miles (30km) away in Broxbourne, says: “It’s really strange being out for the first time in six months. A funny feeling but I’m really, really pleased and relieved to be getting my vaccine.”
Moments after the needle is taken out of her arm, the great-grandmother says: “I feel fine. I didn’t even feel it. It was so easy.”
What is her message to people thinking about getting the vaccine?
“Just come - the sooner it’s done the better,” says Ms Austin, a former carer who worked for Enfield Council.
image captionA queue formed outside the centre as people waited to get their jab
The council-run Stevenage site is one of seven mass vaccination centres in England, with others in Newcastle, Manchester, London, Epsom, Bristol and Birmingham.
The centre says the opening day was fully booked within three hours and it is expecting to vaccinate hundreds of people a day. Currently, most of the people attending are aged 80 and over.
image captionThe building is usually a conference centre owned by Hertfordshire County Council
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said 14 million of those most at risk from Covid-19 in the UK, along with health and care workers, should be vaccinated by mid-February, at a rate of more than 2 million each week.
At Robertson House, people will be able to receive their vaccine from 08:00 to 20:00 GMT, seven days a week.
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Nurses, doctors, physios and other NHS staff working nearby will also be able to receive their vaccination at the site, along with social care and care home workers.
image captionJoy Sheppard, a retired NHS worker, was among the first people to receive the vaccine in Stevenage
Joy Sheppard, 82, says she made the 34-mile (55km) trip from Tring to have her jab after booking her slot on Saturday.
The retired NHS worker has a son who has been “heavily shielding”, as has her husband, who is also 82.
The prospect of eventually being fully vaccinated against the virus would “make such a difference” to her life, she says.
She describes the set-up at Robertson House as “excellent”.
Gerald Rose, from Radlett, agrees, saying “everything is well-organised”.
He says he “didn’t feel a thing” after receiving his dose of the vaccine.
image captionGerald Rose, 84, who has been isolating with his wife, says he hopes the pandemic will soon be over
The 84-year-old, who has been isolating with his wife, says the jab gives “added reassurance” and is a “great relief”.
“I’m lucky, being an old man and being called before a lot of people, but I feel fine and I’m pleased it’s arrived, and I hope it [the pandemic] will all be over soon,” he says.
Ben Schofield, BBC Look East Political Correspondent
From buttoning up against the wind and cold in the queue outside Robertson House, to peeling off the layers and exposing an upper arm.
A reminder perhaps that getting here has been a journey from despair to hope.
This centre and others like them, the government and scientists tell us, will be our route out of this pandemic and all its misery.
And if the wait outside was the worst bit, no-one was complaining about getting their jab inside.
The atmosphere in the hub? Calm and professionalism, with room for a cradling arm here, a listening ear there.
The NHS invited over-80s from within 45 minutes of the centre to book a jab. That, according to some local politicians, will have been too much for some.
But from those who did turn up - and slots booked up in just a few hours over the weekend - I heard nothing but determination to get their jab and beat the virus.
Heather Gallagher, from Hitchin, says receiving her Covid vaccine was “no problem at all”.
The 93-year-old was brought to the centre by neighbour Mark Parry, 52, who has been supporting her throughout the pandemic, such as buying a weekly shop.
He says he has noticed the impact isolation has had on his neighbour over the past year.
image captionHeather Gallagher’s neighbour Mark Parry says she will be able to get her independence back
Mr Parry says the vaccine is “going to be such a boon” for Ms Gallagher, adding: “She’s seen none of her friends for a year.”
“This will really, really help. She’ll be able to go back to church again. She’ll be able to get her independence back, doing some shopping and basically start to see her friends, and I think that’s the most important thing mentally wise for her and I can’t wait for it to happen,” he says.
image captionCaroline Shepherd, from the Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust, says this is the “beginning of the end” for many
Caroline Shepherd, the clinical expert for immunisations for Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust (HCT), says it had been “months in the planning” but getting to the opening day has been a bit “frantic” and “we’ve had to immobilise quickly”.
“But the NHS is resilient and we are used to this, and this is what we are best at, we are all very good at responding in an emergency and we have,” she says.
She says it has been a “really emotional” day as “lots of the patients haven’t been out for several months, lots of them haven’t seen family or friends, lots of them haven’t been able to do their social activities, so this to them is the beginning of the end”.
“We have all gone through this past year of living and working in this pandemic, and now there’s finally some hope for everybody, staff and patients,” she says.
image captionThe vaccination centre says slots were fully booked by mid afternoon on Saturday
Along with the Stevenage site, mass vaccination centres are now open in the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, the ExCel in London, the Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham.
The seven centres will run alongside the hundreds GP-led centres and hospital sites where the vaccines are being administered.
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