Not even the rain could dampen the feeling of hope in the leafy village of Cranleigh as the first group of over-80s arrived at the English village hall to receive their Covid-19 vaccinations on Thursday morning.
In the county of Surrey, south-west of London, Cranleigh – home to about 11,500 people – is one of the first places in the country to distribute the vaccine jab.
The initial stage of the country’s vaccination drive targets the elderly and vulnerable, with many of those arriving for their appointments on the first day of the rollout requiring walking sticks, wheelchairs or a family member to guide them into the hall.
“I feel relieved,” said Cranleigh resident Derek Johnson, 87, moments after receiving the first jab of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, as he clutched a card showing the date his shot was administered.
The former power station engineer, who first moved to the village in 1966, said he has mainly stayed indoors since the pandemic started and never imagined his local village hall would one day become a centre for a regional vaccination drive.
“Cranleigh is a lovely place; it’s a utopia and it only took me a few minutes to get here from my bungalow up the road,” he said.
Britain, the first country to approve vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca, is immunising about 200,000 people a day, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said earlier this week, with the Cranleigh effort, set to offer a mix of both vaccines, adding to that drive over the next few weeks.
Built in 1933, the distinctive, mock-Tudor style village hall sits in the heart of the village on the edge of a high street that offers fashion, furniture and coffee shops, as well as the staples such as pharmacies, a butchers, bakery, Marks & Spencer food hall and supermarkets.
Olivia Shaw, the National Health Service’s programme manager for the Cranleigh site, said about 200 people would receive the vaccine on the first day, with appointments booked for the next three days, between 8am and 8pm.
Doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants were administering the immunisations, with up to 50 people able to be in the hall at any one time.
Meanwhile, an army of about 40 volunteer marshals have been recruited to help guide villagers arriving for their appointments.
Those driving into the nearby car park were stopped by volunteer Adrian Clarke, who directed them to parking spots reserved for patients, with other villagers heading in to shop or visit the weekly outdoor market urged to park further away.
For Mr Clarke, 67, becoming a marshal - a role he applied for last year - required an interview, a five-day course and several exams, as well as a number of safety checks.
“I’ve lived in the village since 2004 and grew up in the area and needed to do something to try and help,” said Mr Clarke, who used to work in the construction industry in London.
“I’m not planning to volunteer inside the centre because I’m asthmatic and have had a few heart issues. I’m happy to help outside and my next shift is on Sunday.”
Patient Mr Johnson described his visit to the centre as "so organised".
“I was told to go and sit in my car and then the marshal took a note of the appointment time, took me from the car park to inside the hall, and once inside I was passed from one to the other – it was fantastic," he said
Site manager Ms Shaw said each vaccination takes about 10 minutes with patients staying for another 15 minutes for observation.
The centre is one of a handful of community vaccination hubs in the area, she said, that complement a much larger centre at Epsom Downs racecourse.
Volunteer marshal Marion Blair, 66, who has already helped out at the larger Epsom site, a 43-minute drive away, said her shift in Cranleigh started at 7.30am, ending at midday.
“People are really positive here this morning,” said Ms Blair, a retired gardener who lives in Farley Green. “They are delighted to be on the list and there’s also an enormous amount of excitement from the staff because the vaccinations are happening.
“I’ve spent the morning helping people transfer from the car park to the hall and just generally helping out. It’s a very different feel in Cranleigh to Epsom, because there you can drive into the racecourse and it’s a separate site whereas here we have to be aware of other people shopping and going to the market. It’s right in the village.”
Cranleigh’s army of volunteers was first mobilised in November when NHS Surrey Heartlands Clinical Commissioning Group contacted Liz Townsend, the chair of the Parish County Council, to book the hall for the vaccination drive.
Many of the hall’s regular hirers, such as craft markets, karate classes, exercise sessions, bridge classes and music events were offered alternative venues with the hall's bookings blocked off until March.
The mobilisation evoked memories of Second World War Britain when community facilities were handed over to help the wartime effort.
“The hall was used in the war for the Home Guard to meet and used for lessons when the primary school was bombed. It's also regularly used for blood donation drives," said Ms Townsend, "but this vaccine drive is a first".
While Cranleigh's growing population means it is larger than some small towns in the UK, the distinction between a village and a town is not based on population size or the number of homes, but on the the density of homes in the area.
“Cranleigh is quite far from any other main vaccination centre, so it was important that the elderly could come to somewhere they know and were comfortable getting here,” said Ms Townsend.
Patient Richard Wright, 80, said he was offered two locations for his vaccine, Cranleigh and Guildford.
The retired shop manager and resident of the nearby village of Albury said he chose Cranleigh because it was easier to get to.
“I think everybody should have the vaccine,” he said. "Some people say they won't but it's better to be protected."
Ms Townsend said the vaccine will not only protect the vulnerable but also help the community and local businesses get back on their feet following three lockdowns that have forced the closure of non-essential shops.
She praised the local "community spirit" that has seen a network of 140 street champions help the vulnerable with food and prescription deliveries, as well as business initiatives such as “click-and-collect local” that lets shoppers buy a basket of goods from high-street stores and have them delivered to their home.
“It continues to be very tough for local independent shops who don’t have the financial buffer that a large multinational organisation would have,” Ms Townsend said.
"Everybody just wants to make sure the vaccine is rolled out as quickly as possible to help us get back to some sort of normal life. If the village hall needs to be open 24 hours a day that could potentially happen. The building is there to be used.”