Coronavirus: First NI vaccinations 'to happen next week'

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NI Health Minister Robin Swann has said the first vaccinations against Covid-19 could begin next week

The first people in Northern Ireland could receive their Covid-19 vaccines as soon as 9 December, BBC News NI understands.

The Ulster Hospital is designated as one of seven vaccine points.

It will facilitate mostly South Eastern Trust staff, but people who live in the area and work for another trust can opt to receive their jab there.

The UK is the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for widespread use.

NI Health Minister Robin Swann said it was "a hugely significant day".

The first vaccinations had been scheduled from 14 December but Mr Swann said this could "come forward by a few days".

UK regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), said the jab, which offers up to 95% protection against Covid-19 illness, is safe for rollout.

It is thought Northern Ireland will receive about 1.5m doses, with 25,000 coming next week in the first stage.

Interim guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccintion and Immunisation (JCVI) states the first people to get the vaccine should be residents in a care home for older adults and their carers.

They would be followed by those aged 80 and over as well as frontline health and social care workers.

However, Health Minister Robin Swann said care home residents might have to wait longer, as the Pfizer vaccine and the conditions required for it did "not lend itself easily for utilisation in care homes".

Four further coronavirus-related deaths have been recorded by the Department of Health, bringing its total to 1,015.

Three deaths occurred within the current reporting period, and one outside it.

A further 416 people have tested positive for Covid-19, bringing the total number in Northern Ireland to 53,272.

In the Republic of Ireland, there have been a further five coronavirus-related deaths, bringing its death toll to 2,074.

Health officials also announced 270 new confirmed cases, bringing that total to 73,066.

Media caption,
What will the vaccination process look like?

Patricia Donnelly, who is heading up the vaccine rollout programme in Northern Ireland, said: "We're hoping to vaccinate some time next week and to roll it out thereafter.

"We've been working at this for some time - we knew there would be a vaccine, we didn't know which one.

"We've been working in conjunction with trusts, with general practice and with care homes to identify the best way to do this."

She said the fact the Pfizer vaccine had to be stored at a very low temperature and came in large packs meant it was more practical to bring those receiving it to larger centres - seven of which have been identified, including leisure centres and hospitals.

"That creates some challenges, but they're challenges we very much welcome," she added.

The Ulster Hospital is one of those designated vaccine points, with 18 areas set up for administering the injection.

The facility will cater for mostly South Eastern Trust staff but people who live in the area but work for another trust can opt to receive their jab there.

Image caption,
One of Northern Ireland's vaccination points, based at the Ulster Hospital

Dr Tom Black, chair of the British Medical Association in NI, said a substantial number of lives would be saved by the first phase of the vaccine rollout.

"If we get phase one done with the most vulnerable groups and the most elderly patients, we'll have covered off about 90% of all deaths that would come from this virus in the next three months," he said.

The vaccine requres two separate injections a number of weeks apart.

First Minister Arlene Foster described the news as "an early Christmas present".

She paid tribute to the scientists involved and said she was "proud" the UK had become the first country to approve the vaccine.

Mrs Foster told BBC's Good Morning Ulster that her focus now was on managing the "logistical challenge" of delivering the vaccine.

It will be up to the executive's Covid-19 taskforce, led by new interim head of the civil service Jenny Pyper to manage the vaccination programme with recovery and compliance plans.

She urged everyone in NI to abide by the current public health guidelines but added that Wednesday's news would be a "relief" for many people.

'Game changer'

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said she believed the executive as a whole is convinced the vaccine is a "game changer".

She said phase-one of the rollout in Northern Ireland would begin with priority groups, including the over-80s, care home residents and staff and health and social care workers.

She said she hoped there would be a "strong uptake" of it in the coming months.

Ms O'Neill added that she did not think making it mandatory for people to take the vaccine was the right approach.

"It's understandable if something is rushed through at break-neck speed people will have concerns but let's just put all the information out there," she said.

The deputy first minister said she looked forward to the day when ministers no longer had to take difficult decisions related to Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

This is news that we have been waiting on for months and months.

It marks the start of a very tricky process that will eventually get us back to hopefully some point of normality.

It is an extremely difficult vaccine to store, to deliver and to roll out because it has to be kept at a certain temperature.

There are seven locations in Northern Ireland, including leisure centres and hospitals, where the vaccine programme could be administered.

We have been told behind the scenes these plans have been put in place and it will be a mammoth process, it will be a public health operation like none seen before and hopefully one we don't ever see again.

The UK has already ordered 40m doses - enough to vaccinate 20m people, with two shots each.

The first doses are to arrive in the UK in the coming days.

It is the fastest ever vaccine to go from concept to reality, taking only 10 months to follow the same developmental steps that normally span a decade.

The vaccine must be stored at around -70C and will be transported in special boxes, packed in dry ice. Once delivered, it can be kept for up to five days in a fridge.

Also on Wednesday, Stormont announced there would be £10m in support for the newly self-employed.

There are 134,000 self employed people in Northern Ireland and it is estimated about 3,000 of those will be newly self-employed.

Details on eligibility will be announced by Economy Minister Diane Dodds.

Meanwhile, the SDLP's education spokesperson has called for schools to close for Christmas on 11 December.

West Tyrone assembly member Daniel McCrossan said on social media that pupils should be taught remotely after 11 December.