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Music, fast food and mud at London’s summer vaccine festival

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<span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

It certainly felt like a British music festival. A band was playing on the main stage, food vans dispensed trays and across the field people filed in and out of a big tent. There was even standard festival weather: bright sunshine with the threat of rain and, inevitably, mud.

This was no Glasto, though. It was the summer vaccine festival in east London, where people were being encouraged to walk in, get a Covid jab and then enjoy free food and music.

Several of those who went to get their doses on Friday said they had just happened upon the festival as they passed Langdon Park in Tower Hamlets. They heard the music, smelled the food and decided to head in and get vaccinated while they were there.

“It’s lovely,” said Dhilshana Shiraj as she waited to receive her second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. “I could get the jab and bring the kids along as well, so they could enjoy themselves.”

Dhilshana Shiraj receives a dose of the Pfizer vaccine at the Langdon Park festival
Dhilshana Shiraj receives a dose of the Pfizer vaccine at the Langdon Park festival. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Tower Hamlets council and Barts Health NHS Trust put on the outreach event, one of several they are running.

“If the people won’t come to the vaccine, then take the vaccine to them,” said Tejal Patel, a senior pharmacist who was overseeing the operation.

They are motivated, in part, by relatively low rates of vaccine uptake in the borough. Patel said there were particular concerns about uptake among people of some minority ethnic backgrounds and religions, as well as younger people more generally.

Local health officials had found it useful to work with temples and mosques and to run events such as the festival in their efforts to tackle the problem, she said, and their initiatives had reached 15,000 people in the area since they started.

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If the implicit threat of ongoing restrictions for those without a vaccine passport are a stick, then the summer vaccine festival is a carrot.

Shiraj was enthusiastic about the idea, suggesting that the sound of the music would draw people in the surrounding area to the park. She said she had found getting her first dose a nerve-racking experience in what were more imposing and clinical surrounds. Having the second during a visit to a mini-festival near her home was a very different experience. “I feel more relaxed if I have something to distract me,” she said.

Anyone getting vaccinated receives a voucher to redeem at the festival&#x002019;s food vans
Anyone getting vaccinated received a voucher to redeem at the festival’s food vans. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Some of those heading to the tent said they had an appointment for their jab, but were taking the opportunity to get it more quickly. Ian O’Shaughnessy was not one of them. He had held off for fear of being used as a guinea pig. But he saw the tent and heard the music as he was passing on his bike. “It encouraged me,” he said, adding that he may not have taken the step had he been required to book an appointment at a vaccination centre.

Having had his first dose though, he said he would definitely return for his second in due course.

One vaccinator who has worked on outreach programmes in the past explained that such events are acutely vulnerable to the weather turning. So it proved on Friday as spells of sunshine were interrupted by driving rain.

Officials, however, said they would be running the festival all weekend. They hope that as words gets around, hundreds of people will have been vaccinated by the time they pack up.

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