When they came, they came in their thousands, keen to receive protection against a virus that has already killed so many.
Responding to a notice advertising a vaccination drive among illegal migrants, they flocked to Chinatown, in central London. As the afternoon wore on, long queues of people, mostly of Chinese origin and most wearing facemasks, stretched around the streets of Soho, past the restaurants and shops in which many work.
The crowds gathered following a notice issued by the Chinese Information and Advice Centre (CIAC), which works to support disadvantaged Chinese people in the UK, urging undocumented migrants to come forward without fear of repercussions.
It read: “A vaccine bus is available in London Chinatown to offer free vaccine jabs to the community without an appointment. You do not need to have NHS number, any proof of address, provide personal identification.”
The notice, which said the bus would operate between 12pm and 5pm on Thursday, continued: “Undocumented migrants also welcomed – no details or identity will be passed on to the police or immigration. Please tell all your family, friends, neighbours and colleagues, to take this vaccine. All current age categories welcomed. Stay safe! Get vaccinated!”
The vaccination drive is part of a push by public health officials to target some of the most vulnerable and deprived in London, living in conditions on which Covid thrives.
The virus is known to spread particularly virulently among people living in cramped, multi-household conditions, often sharing bedrooms and working in public-facing jobs with no opportunity to shield or work from home and fearful of taking time off work to isolate if tested positive.
Many of those who responded to the call are unlikely to be registered with local GPs – the normal route for obtaining vaccine appointments – or may have feared that coming forward through more official channels might lead to problems with their migration status and possible deportation.
To counter fears, pamphlets were delivered through the doors of local businesses a week before the arrival of the vaccine bus to encourage people to attend.
The bus was organised with the backing of Westminster council and is scheduled to move to other locations over the coming week.
A spokesman for the North-West London Clinical Commissioning Group, which set up the vaccine bus, told The Telegraph: “The offer of the Covid vaccine is available to people over the age of 30 and those in the priority groups as outlined by the JCVI [joint committee on vaccination and immunisation].
“Getting the vaccine is the single most important step we can take to protect ourselves, our families and our communities against Covid-19 and we remain committed to working with the local community to ensure all those who are eligible can receive their vaccine.”
Demand was so overwhelming that the medics in the white bus are understood to have implemented their own ad-hoc only 40s age limit in order to target the most vulnerable categories first.
Mr Wong, 34, who manages Haozhan, just a few doors away from where the van set up on Newport Place, said: “Some people were really disappointed that the vaccine was offered to over-40s even though the leaflet said everyone can get it. That is why so many young people went out.”
At the moment, most vaccine appointments can only be booked through the NHS website or via a GP surgery.
Only people aged 30 and over are currently eligible to get the jab, but similar pop-up centres have been used for vaccination drives in Bolton and other towns in the North-West to jab as many younger people as possible who live with elderly relatives or work in essential occupations.
Official figures from NHS England show 206,311 received their first dose of the vaccine on Thursday, while 368,554 got their second dose.
Government guidance states that everyone in the UK, including illegal migrants, should be able to get a Covid vaccine.
Volunteers held up signs in Chinese script giving instructions to those waiting for any opportunity to protect themselves as well as those around them.
Police were on hand to maintain order as the crowds continued to grow, although locals described their presence as “minimal”.