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Margaret Keenan, 90, is the first patient in Britain to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at University Hospital, administered by nurse May Parsons, in Coventry, Dec. 8, 2020.POOL/Reuters

It hardly made for gripping television and the whole thing lasted only a few minutes. But TV outlets across Britain covered every second of nurse May Parsons injecting 90-year-old Margaret Keenan with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 at 6:31 a.m. Tuesday.

Ms. Keenan, who turns 91 next week, became an instant celebrity as the first person to receive the vaccine outside a clinical trial and received a round of applause from staff at University Hospital Coventry.

“It’s the best early birthday present I could wish for because it means I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends in the new year after being on my own for most of the year,” Ms. Keenan told reporters afterward. “My advice to anyone offered the vaccine is to take it. If I can have it at 90, then you can have it, too.”

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The fanfare that greeted Ms. Keenan’s jab typified the elation and relief that swept across much of the country Tuesday as the vaccine finally became a reality. Pictures of happily vaccinated people filled news sites all day, including a shot of 81-year-old William Shakespeare. He was also among those vaccinated in Coventry, which is about 30 kilometres from Stratford-upon-Avon, the home of Mr. Shakespeare’s namesake. Headline writers couldn’t resist more than a few riffs on the Bard’s work, with some dubbing Mr. Shakespeare’s vaccination “the taming of the flu.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock became teary-eyed later as he spoke about how the vaccination program will be rolled out across the country. “Today marks the start of a fight back against our common enemy – coronavirus,” he told the House of Commons. “We will look back on today as V-Day.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the work of scientists and hospital staff and added on Twitter: “There is light at the end of the tunnel.”

The challenge now is to get the vaccine out to the people who need it most and ensure that the supply continues. The U.K. has ordered 40 million doses – enough for 20 million people, as the vaccine requires two injections – but so far only 800,000 have arrived from Pfizer’s plant in Belgium. The government is confident that millions more will be arriving shortly, and Mr. Hancock has vowed that vaccinations will be under way in long-term care homes by Christmas.

  • Margaret Keenan, 90, is the first patient in Britain to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at University Hospital, administered by nurse May Parsons, at the start of the largest ever immunisation programme in the British history, in Coventry, Britain.POOL/Reuters

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It could take until March for all of the at-risk population to receive the vaccine, said Sir Simon Stevens, the head of the National Health Service. The plan is to administer it first to people over 80 who are either currently in hospital or have been recently released. Hospital and long-term care home staff will also be vaccinated before the program rolls out to the wider public through doctors’ offices and vaccine centres in stadiums and arenas.

Canada has ordered 20 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but it has yet to be approved by Health Canada. An initial delivery of 249,000 doses is expected to arrive next week pending regulatory approval.

The British government has been eager to boost support for the vaccination program, which is voluntary, and hopes celebrities will come forward and roll up their sleeves. The Queen, 94, and Prince Philip, 99, are expected to receive doses as part of a national publicity campaign, and other members of the Royal Family are also likely to promote the program.

But an effort by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge has already proved controversial. The couple have begun a train trip around Britain to thank health care workers, but some have suggested the tour contravenes travel restrictions. Officials at Kensington Palace have insisted that all COVID-19 protocols are being followed. However, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pointedly refused to welcome the visit and highlighted Scotland’s limitations on travel.

“The Scottish government was advised about the intention to visit, and we made sure that the Royal household were aware, as you would expect, of the restrictions in place in Scotland so that could inform both the decision and the planning of the visit,” she told reporters Tuesday.

The trip has also received a cool reception in Wales, where the government has banned travel between areas with outbreaks of the disease. “I’d rather that no one was having unnecessary visits,” Welsh Health Minister Vaughan Gething said.

Mr. Johnson rejected the criticism and issued a statement through his office praising the couple. “The tour will be a welcome morale boost to front line workers who have done so much during the pandemic,” he said.

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