Wednesday’s announcement that the UK had approved the Pfizer/ BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for widespread use was perhaps the best news we’ve had in a very long time.

The UK has ordered 40 million doses of the vaccine, enough to vaccinate 20 million people with two doses, given 21 days apart. It is understood that a national vaccination programme could begin as early as next week, with the most vulnerable people - those living in care homes, and their carers - being the first to get the vaccine.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson could hardly hide his relief, describing the announcement as ‘fantastic’ news, and tweeting: “It’s the protection of vaccines that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get the economy moving again.”

It is good news. But be in no doubt: the operation to roll out the vaccines - both the Pfizer jab and others such as the Oxford vaccine that are likely to be approved before too long - will be a major one. We’re not all going to get vaccinated overnight.

NHS England responded very cautiously yesterday to queries about how and when the vaccination programme might be rolled out in York.

“The NHS has planned extensively to deliver the largest vaccination programme in our history,” it said. “Delivering the Pfizer vaccine is complex as it needs to be stored at very cold temperatures and moved carefully, so at first we will deliver it from ‘Hospital Hubs’. We will confirm hub details shortly but not right now given security reasons and various logistical steps needed before distribution.

“We are preparing to offer the vaccine to more groups of people and in more ways, like local vaccination services, but this will be a marathon over the coming months, not a sprint. We will keep expanding the programme as we get more vaccines.”

What we do know is that, as reported on Wednesday, a programme to vaccinate frontline staff at York Hospital Trust is expected to get under way before Christmas.

With the Hospital Trust employing about 9,000 staff at eight different hospital sites (the main two being York and Scarborough) even that will be a hugely complex logistical exercise. It will pale in comparison with the much larger project of getting everyone else in York (not to mention the rest of the country) vaccinated, however. A marathon rather than a sprint indeed.

York Hospital itself will not be responsible for the general roll-out of the vaccination programme in York. “We will be undertaking a programme for our own staff - not the general public,” a spokesperson stressed. But even so, the logistics of getting the vaccine to all frontline hospital staff who need it will be difficult.

Throughout this last year, however, the hospital trust’s procurement team has become used to logistical problems like that.

Ensuring that all hospital staff have had the PPE they needed - whether masks, gloves, visors or ventilators - hasn’t been easy in the last few months, admits the Trust’s head of procurement, Ian Willis. “At times the operation has been like a graceful swan,” he says. “All calm on the surface, but eight legs pedalling like mad under water!”

Just look at some numbers. Ian’s team gets PPE deliveries seven days a week. “And on a typical weekday the PPE team delivers 30,000 aprons, 38,000 surgical masks and 50,000 pair of gloves together with other items like, gowns, goggles and visors!” Ian says. “We reckon we’ve handled roughly 18 million piece of PPE since April. That’s a crazy amount of stuff!”

Making sure all that ‘stuff’ gets to the right person at the right time - and in the right size - takes some planning.

It was particularly difficult back at the start of the pandemic, when there were real shortages, Ian admits. The problem was that the world’s biggest manufacturer of PPE, China, had effectively shut down because of the coronavirus.

That meant real, global shortages of vital equipment. “Buying stuff in a shop is really easy when there’s stuff to buy,” Ian says. “But when the stuff isn’t there to buy, it becomes really tricky!”

Staff at York Hospitals Trust never went short of PPE, he insists - but at times it was a pretty close thing.

To begin with, for example, ventilators couldn’t be got for love nor money. “We really did struggle early on,” Ian admits. “There were just too few ventilators.” York Hospitals Trust had pre-ordered 20 of the machines, used to help patients breathe when they have severe lung problems, from a supplier in the US. But then the delivery was stopped - it was a case of America deciding that America came first, Ian says.

Fortunately by then, the first peak of the pandemic had passed. But it was a near thing.

There were problems with other PPE, too - sometimes from suppliers who promised the Earth but never delivered.

At one point, Ian and his team placed an order for 1,000 FFP3 masks - an advanced surgical respirator mask.

“We kept being told ‘yes, we have them’,” Ian says. “We were told they would be dispatched on Monday, then on Friday, then on Monday.” In the end, he told the supplier he wanted to see a photo of the stock. “And they said ‘Oh, it is still on the ‘plane from China!’” He cancelled the order.

Because of the global shortage there was, inevitably, intense competition for PPE. That meant that prices soared - up three- or four- or even ten-fold.There were also horror stories of hospital trusts being ‘gazumped’ - of sending teams to pick up stock, only to be told when they arrived that it had been sold to a higher bidder.

There were ‘chancers’ around, Ian says - companies which set themselves up very quickly, and were not able to deliver.

Due diligence became key. The first step was to go to Companies House. If a company had only registered itself three weeks earlier, you knew it wasn’t going to be reliable.

More and more, he came to rely on trusted suppliers he had dealt with in 25 years of hospital procurement. “We leaned on them.”

There was also a brilliant sense of all being in it together shared between neighbouring regional hospital trusts, he said.

There were ‘mutual aid meetings’ held seven days a week, during which York Hospitals Trust liaised with hospitals across Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. Hospitals would tell each-other what they were short of, and by swapping and transferring stock, were able to make sure they never ran out, Ian says. “Our transport department were incredible and ensured these emergency supplies were either delivered or collected at very short notice.”

Local people and organisations in York also stepped up to the plate, Ian says. “We received donations of fabric, gowns, visors and other PPE from local suppliers, vets and dental practices.

“We also had unbelievable support from York Scrubs, who made workwear, and from York Theatre Royal’s costume department, who made gowns. York University, York College, St Peter’s and Manor School, to name but a few, also made visors using 3D printers.”

Between them all, they managed to keep the supplies going until China’s manufacturing system kicked in again, and PPE became less scarce.

But it had been a frantic few week, Ian admits. At one point, he worked 21 days straight.

His 48-strong team was supplemented with staff from other departments - including technicians, research staff and pharmacists.

“It’s been a huge collective effort and there are so many people who deserve the recognition for rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in,” he says.

PPE has been less scarce during the pandemic’s second wave - partly because China is manufacturing again, and partly because hospital trusts have had more time to prepare, and knew what to expect.

“We currently hold 14 days of stock across all the major lines - and 90-plus days of some other lines,” Ian says. All that stock is kept on pallet racks in what used to be the hospital’s physiotherapy outpatients’ department.

Nevertheless, the need for PPE will continue for as long as the pandemic lasts - and beyond.

At least, with the promise of vaccines, we’ll be able to start the New Year with a bit more hope, Ian says.

“And when I look back on this time in 20 years I’ll be proud to be able to say I helped in the fight against Covid-19,” the 49-year-old says.