Dr Nikki Kanani, the GDST’s Alumna of the Year Exceptional Contribution Award winner spoke with Beth Dawson, Head of Sutton High School, about her leading role in the biggest vaccine roll-out in NHS history.
The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered many previously undreamed-of scenarios, from bans on sitting on park benches to the then US president suggesting that people inject themselves with bleach to ward off the virus.
But few have been more bizarre than last September’s very public showdown between the UK government’s chief medical adviser Chris Whitty and Trinidad-born rap star Nicki Minaj, which saw Prime Minister Boris Johnson comparing the singer to Sutton High School alumna Dr Nikki Kanani.
The unlikely spat was sparked by a series of Twitter posts from Minaj questioning the safety of Covid-19 vaccines. Prior to the Met Gala Ball in New York, the singer announced that she wasn’t planning to attend the event, which enforced a vaccination requirement for guests.
“If I get vaccinated it won’t for the Met,” she tweeted to her more than 22m followers. “It’ll be once I feel I’ve done enough research.”
Whitty waded into the row after being questioned about Minaj’s claims during a Downing Street briefing. The medical expert said: “There are a number of myths which fly around, some of which are clearly ridiculous and are clearly designed just to scare.”
The prime minister stepped in, telling reporters, “I am not as familiar with the works of Nicki Minaj as I probably should be, but I am familiar with Nikki Kanani, a superstar GP from Bexley who has appeared many times before you who will tell you that vaccines are wonderful and everybody should get them.”
“I prefer to listen to Nikki Kanani,” he concluded.
When Dr Kanani spoke to Sutton High School’s Head, Beth Dawson, she explained what it felt to be brought to the attention of not just the British public, but the world’s music fans, anti-vaxxers and Twitter trolls.
“It’s been very strange,” she said. “I did some media before the pandemic when we were talking about various stories about general practice and primary care, but it was really when I started doing the Number 10 briefings that it became a different type of limelight. And it’s a very unusual experience to be standing there with your country’s PM or senior leadership and answering questions. And you never know what the questions are going to be.
“The privilege of being part of a programme which took us from the darkness and despair of the pandemic to hope and elation and optimism has been incredible.”
“I’ve had an interesting relationship with social media and I’ve come on and off social media over the past eighteen months. It’s an incredibly toxic space at times, especially at the moment when society feels frustrated and tired of being under limitations and people will take out their frustrations in lots of different ways. And I experienced some of that quite a bit over the pandemic and I really had to step away, and at times deactivate accounts and come back when I felt ready again.”
During the toughest months of 2020, the promise of a vaccine to protect us against Covid-19 seemed like a golden ticket to happier times. The first UK patient to be vaccinated was Margaret Keenan, a 90 year old grandmother who received the first Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be dispensed in the UK on 8th December 2020. Beth Dawson asked Nikki how she became involved in the roll-out of the vaccine programme.
“The vaccination programme for me started in November 2020. It was the week before Diwali and no one had really had a break during the pandemic, but I thought I might get a bit of time around Diwali with the family. Then I got a phone call asking me to join the vaccine programme.
“One of the things that we are proudest about as a vaccine team is that we had a really strong philosophy from the beginning that we leave nobody behind.”
“Even though it’s been exhausting, the privilege of being part of a programme which took us from the darkness and despair of the pandemic to hope and elation and optimism has been incredible, and one of the real joys is that I’ve been able to be out vaccinating as well as bringing the programme together with my team and colleagues. Going out and vaccinating – and the joy, especially in the early days was really phenomenal.
“One of the things that we are proudest about as a vaccine team is that we had a really strong philosophy from the beginning that we leave nobody behind. That we understand what communities need in terms of support and confidence to take up the vaccine and then we deliver it in a way that makes sense for that community. So we go out and make sure its accessible to you and your family and friends. And I think for me that’s a real legacy piece for the NHS – how do we learn how to work with communities so that we are doing our very best for everyone in society and not just a select few?”
With the vaccine programme in full swing, is Nikki planning to remain in her role as Deputy Lead for the NHS vaccination programme, or is she looking ahead at what is coming over the horizon?
She admitted, “I’m not very good at staying still for too long. What I’d really like to see is local health systems – there are 42 in the country – taking a leading role in vaccinations for all age groups because actually one part of the country needs a very different model to another. Even if it’s all reliant on service providers, the way that that’s delivered is very different. I’m a big believer in nationally prescribing the outcomes and the philosophy of where we want to get to, but allowing local systems to drive the ultimate way of delivering care. So who knows what’s next for me, but if we can get people protected from Covid and flu, then I’ll be very happy.”
Dr Nikki Kanani is a GP and Medical Director for Primary Care for NHS England and NHS Improvement, the first woman ever appointed to this role. Dr Kanani is an alumna of Sutton High School and this year’s recipient of the GDST alumna award for the Exceptional Contribution.
She has been consistently at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19, and played a leading part in the roll-out of the largest vaccination programme in the history of the NHS, launching the NHS blueprint to increase vaccine confidence – all of that while continuing to practice as a GP in south east London.
Nikki was awarded an MBE in the 2017 Birthday Honours for services to primary care, and she’s also a member of The King’s Fund General Advisory Council.