Northern Ireland vaccine chief to accept honour from Queen on behalf of team

Patricia Donnelly is to be made an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list. Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The woman who led Northern Ireland’s Covid-19 vaccine programme said she will accept an honour from the Queen on behalf of the whole team.

Patricia Donnelly is to be made an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

She described receiving the letter with the news as “really very emotional”.

“It is an honour, it is a privilege and, particularly in the jubilee year, it is appreciated,” she told the PA news agency.

“And I realise that it is not just about me, it was about the vaccination programme and it represented all that work, so I do feel a sense of responsibility in that way.

“It is a team effort, it was that army of people who did that superhuman job and continue to do it.

Sister Joanna Sloan was the first person in Northern Ireland to receive a Covid vaccine Credit: Liam McBurney/PA

“None of us who have been involved in it do it for the honours, but when they come it is just the icing and the cherry on the cake. It’s really rather wonderful.”

Mrs Donnelly started her career as a clinical psychologist before moving into health service management.

She was tasked in early October 2020 to lead Northern Ireland’s Covid-19 vaccination programme, and oversaw the administration of more than 3.7 million jabs before retiring at the start of April.

It has been the largest vaccination programme in the region, but Mrs Donnelly said she was not daunted once she knew who was involved and their commitment.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

She described watching Sister Joanna Sloan become the first person in Northern Ireland to be vaccinated, and the spontaneous applause that followed, as a moment that will stay in her memory.

“We knew at the beginning that failure was not an option, so once you have got that attitude in mind, there is no failure and there are just problems to be solved – it had its bumps along the way,” she said.

Those bumps included challenging logistics around moving and administering the vaccines, which they overcame by being flexible and adaptable with pharmacy advice.

They also had the challenge of going into care homes to vaccinate the most vulnerable, before mass vaccination centres and then changing tactics again for the younger age groups by going out to venues such as nightclubs and sports halls.

Currently more than 91% over those aged over 18 are vaccinated, as well as nearly 90% over the over-12s.

Patricia Donnelly at the SSE Arena in Belfast Credit: centre

“It was exciting, it was challenging, it was a bit thrilling, a bit too thrilling at times,” she said.

“There were dark days that first winter when you start to see the impact of it, and the meaning of it for people who were coming forward for vaccination, people who had been shielding, people who were afraid, families who were afraid for the people they loved.

“That was very emotional for all involved, and it kept them going, and it still keeps them going… the spring booster is under way, and I am that grandparent that still watches. I may not have direct responsibility but I do watch and look at the numbers – nearly four million doses of vaccination.

“I’m grateful to every single one of them who not only committed in the December of 2020 but have continued to do that ever since.”

Mrs Donnelly has been targeted by some opposed to the vaccine, including being confronted, letters, phone calls and her face appearing on a poster, but she said she has also received a lot of positive feedback.

“I think if you know you are doing the right thing you just keep going at it – it never daunted me at all, even though some of it was a bit dark,” she said.

“But it’s far outweighed by all those people who come up and followed me in supermarkets to say, ‘are you the vaccine lady?’

“I have had a lot of people, older people in particular, come up and say what it has meant to them to be vaccinated and thank me for that.”

Mrs Donnelly is continuing to contribute to the health service as chairwoman of the Northern Ireland Bereavement Network and the HSC Clinical Ethics Forum.

“We’re developing a 10-year strategy for bereavement care and really the opportunity to have a very positive legacy from Covid, because although it isn’t tightly related to Covid, the deaths that occurred during the period of the pandemic really highlighted the gaps in service that we had in supporting individuals and families,” she added.

Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann congratulated health and social care staff recognised in the Birthday Honours.

“Congratulations to every one of you and thank you for everything that you do, but I also want to extend my heartfelt thanks and congratulations to Patricia Donnelly who was at the forefront of the pandemic response for over 18 months, spearheading the largest vaccination campaign in our history,” he said.

“This is a richly deserved honour that is a fitting tribute to someone who played such a pivotal role throughout the pandemic.”