Pharmacists launch service to vaccinate homeless people and undocumented migrants against COVID-19

The charity NishkamSWAT vaccinated "at least 100" people against COVID-19 over three dates in April 2021.
older man being vaccinated

A charity that offers food and healthcare to homeless people in London ran a COVID-19 vaccination service in partnership with the NHS over three dates in April 2021.

Nishkam Sikh Welfare and Awareness Team (SWAT) has been providing food to central London’s homeless population since 2009 and catering to healthcare needs since 2017.

Speaking to The Pharmaceutical Journal, community pharmacist Gurinder Singh, who volunteers with the charity, said the additional provision of COVID-19 vaccines “tied in quite nicely” with the charity’s existing provision.

He said the service, which vaccinated “at least 100” people from its location on the Strand, in central London, with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, will return in June 2021 to provide second doses.

In March 2021, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advised that homeless people should be included in group 6 of NHS England’s vaccination programme, alongside individuals aged 16–64 years with underlying health conditions.

Singh said the service’s success was owed to the trust established between NishkamSWAT and the local homeless community over the years.

“One of the reasons we saw an uptake is because, having done homeless runs for that population for the last two years, they know the faces,” he said. “These are the people they come to for food and toiletries.”

He added that the homeless population is “an important group to vaccinate because they often huddle in close knit groups, so transmission is easier”.

The service ran on 19, 22 and 26 April 2021 in front of the Zimbabwean Embassy, and involved a collaboration between the charity, the local NHS and Westminster Council, which Singh said is a model that “we need to adopt post-COVID” to sustain a recovery from the pandemic.

He explained that the service was “probably stopping at three [dates] because it’s the same homeless people that live in that area”. But he said that the charity has “the authorisation to do their second vaccine as well, so we’re going back to that same area in June”.

As part of the JCVI advice, the government said local decisions should be taken on whether a shorter schedule may be offered if the homeless population are unlikely to return for the second dose at 12 weeks.

Singh said: “Quite a few of them had mobiles, so we’ve taken their numbers and also we’ve given the [vaccination] cards out. We’ve already fixed the date for the second clinic, so when they were going, we wrote the date on their card — they’re aware of having that second vaccine.

“But these are people that often don’t move. This has been their home for the last three or four years and we’ve been seeing them day-in and day-out. Closer to the time, they’ll start getting reminders.”

The service was also open to undocumented migrants, which Singh said was a “big achievement because often they don’t have any sick pay”.

“Even if they have symptoms, they will probably end up going into work because they need that money to survive,” he said. “We wanted to go to the root cause of where transmission might happen.”

Randeep S Lall, chief executive officer of NishkamSWAT, said that the homeless population “are much more likely to have physical or mental health conditions which put them at a higher risk from the harms of COVID-19”.

READ MORE: Hope for the homeless: how pharmacy is supporting those living on the streets

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, May 2021, Vol 306, No 7949;306(7949)::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2021.1.82370

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