The Royal family continue with a tradition of guiding the way that stretches back to the 18th century
It was just three weeks ago that the Queen used her annual Christmas broadcast to praise scientists for giving Britain "hope" during the pandemic, with a direct nod to their success in developing vaccines against coronavirus.
On Saturday, both Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh were given the vaccine at Windsor Castle, marking a milestone moment not just for the couple personally but also, the nation.
Not only is the announcement likely to serve as a morale booster to the hundreds of NHS staff and GPs engaged in the mammoth task of rolling out the programme, but it is also hoped it will undercut opposition among vaccine sceptics.
It was a very similar picture in 1950s Britain, during the programme to roll out a vaccine against polio, a disease that at its peak in the previous decades had paralysed or killed over half a million people worldwide every year, many of them young children.
Despite the threat posed by poliomyelitis the introduction of a vaccine in 1956 by the recently established National Health Service was still greeted with suspicion by many parents, in part because of reports that some children in the U.S. had developed polio and others died after taking the new vaccine. In a move designed to win round public opinion, the Palace briefed the press that the Queen had approved the vaccination of her children Charles and Anne, then aged eight and six. In January 1957 newspapers, under headlines such as 'The Queen decides on polio', revealed that the royal children were each given two injections a month apart by Dr Wilfrid Percy Henry Sheldon, the 55-year-old Harley Street specialist who had served the Queen since her coronation.
'Thus the Queen has followed 200,000 other mothers in using Britain's vaccine - just a year after its discovery was announced,' wrote the Daily Mail at the time. There is little doubt that the actions of the Royal family helped convince many to let their own children receive the vaccine and over the following months and years millions more went on to roll up their sleeves and do so. The vaccination programme helped cases fall dramatically and since the 1980s no cases of the infection have been registered in the UK, despite it being still found in other countries across the world.
The Royal family has traditionally held progressive views on vaccination. In 1721, Queen Caroline, wife to George II, when still Princess of Wales, had her own children inoculated against smallpox after learning from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, her friend, that children in Turkey were being successfully vaccinated. In his book Letters on England, Voltaire wrote that at least 10,000 children owed their lives to Queen Caroline and Lady Mary.
Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, was also a notable champion of vaccination, despite losing two sons to smallpox. Prince Charles - who had unwittingly played a central part in persuading Britain’s mums and dads to get their own children inoculated against polio - reprised his role last month, when he confirmed he would take one of the two vaccines currently being rolled out to combat Covid.
Emphasising he would have to wait his turn just like anyone else, the Prince told staff during a tour of a vaccination centre in Gloucester: "I think I am way down the list and will have to wait. I think I'll have to wait for the AstraZeneca one before it gets to my turn." His words were widely seen as a boost to the Government's efforts to encourage broad uptake of the drug, in the face of “anti-vax” campaigners. That message can only have been strengthened by the Queen and Prince Philip’s very practical intervention in the debate.
The announcement that both have received the vaccine, as members of the second priority group of those aged 80 and older, was greeted enthusiastically by ministers and officials whose task it is to see that millions more follow their example - provided the programme runs as smoothly as they have promised. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said: “I'm delighted that Her Majesty the Queen and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh have received their Covid vaccine. We are defeating this virus jab by jab.”
Ethan Hopkinson, a fundraiser working with disabled youngsters in Milton Keynes tweeted: “The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh have led by example.” The significance of the Queen’s move was acknowledged even by those who might not necessarily sympathise with all aspects of the Monarchy. Labour activist Panny Antoniou, the co-chair of the Young Fabians International Network, tweeted: “Fantastic, whatever your views on them, they are both in their 90s, making them a high priority group. Knowing they’ve had the vaccine will also convince lots who are nervous about taking it.”
There are similar hopes about the impact across the globe of the Vatican’s endorsement of the vaccines. In his Christmas message the Pope called for everyone to have access to the inoculation, “especially for the most vulnerable and needy of all regions of the planet”. It was announced on Saturday that he would be receiving the vaccine in the next few days, no doubt influencing millions of Catholics around the world to get ‘the jab’, just as Her Majesty is influencing her subjects at home.