Some 47 locations are currently under assessment as the government seeks to start NHS staff vaccinations next week. Reliable Wi-Fi is critical to manage vaccination appointments and input data. Virgin Media and BT are among the providers approached by the government to ensure access to fast and reliable broadband.
Providers will be asked to assess the countrywide locations to assess their suitability for opening by 1st December, when the first tranche of inoculation centres will start the task of protecting frontline NHS workers against the coronavirus.
According to the Financial Times, sites will include St Helen's Rugby Stadium, Cheltenham Racecourse, Stratford's Westfield shopping centre and one of the crypts beneath Blackburn Cathedral. Further centres are planned in community centres, museums and health centres within days.
While the three main vaccine candidates, Oxford-AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna await emergency regulatory approval, the race is on to implement large scale vaccination programmes.
The UK has promised to prioritise health care workers before Christmas and central to their approach is the need to connect up potential vaccination sites to a fast and reliable network that will ensure the smooth running of such a large scale programme.
Telecom companies have been asked to estimate cost, time and potential barriers including the need for planning permission that could hold up any necessary upgrades. Many large scale urban centres already boast good connectivity, but the picture changes in more rural areas. The additional staff and resources will need to be diverted to ensure the upgrades run efficiently.
A communications Nightingale
The process is similar to during the first wave of the pandemic when telecoms teams were able to install high speed Wi-Fi in the Nightingale hospitals, often in as little as 48 hours.
The entire programme and the communications boost will be overseen by NHSX, the digital arm of the UK health service. The government has been working closely with NHSX and industry to ensure the vaccination centres have the connectivity they need to manage appointments and data.
Openreach, the networking arm of BT Britain's biggest network provider, has also been working with NHSX to prioritise critical sites and deliver the right infrastructure. Virgin Media is also doing all it can to support the national effort.
Keeping the country connected
Britain's Telecoms industry has been under intense pressure since the start of the pandemic to keep networks up to the task of connecting the UK during lockdown. Several factors have put the UK's telecoms infrastructure under strain. There are millions more remote workers than ever before, while the track and trace programme and the ability to manage key medical data have assumed huge significance. All rely on solid broadband and mobile networks to remain connected and efficient.
Industry leaders have also agreed to remove data charges during the pandemic to allow free and easy access to Covid-19 information, mental health, domestic abuse and other related helplines and crisis management centres during the pandemic.
Supporting Britain's mass vaccination effort could see a return to something like normality as early as next Easter.