Northern Ireland news

Analysis: With the end in reach, political messaging on vaccines has never been more important

25,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be delivered to Northern Ireland next week for rollout
Seanín Graham

"MOMENTOUS" was the word used by both Robin Swann and Arlene Foster to describe yesterday's news that a Covid vaccine had been approved for mass rollout.

Ten months on from the first person testing positive for coronavirus in Northern Ireland, the speed of the Pfizer vaccine's development and success of its clinical trials are indeed nothing short of extraordinary.

Other drugs are pending approval and the proposed December 14 date to deliver the jabs to frontline staff and care home residents has now been brought forward a week.

The breakthrough is undoubtedly cause for hope and came 24 hours after the north's Covid death toll passed the 1,000 mark.

While it will take until at least next summer to deliver a vaccination programme to the entire population, the finishing line is at least in sight.

Ms Foster and Mr Swann were at pains yesterday to stress the importance of public compliance and sticking to the rules as positive cases and hospital admissions remain high.

However, what is equally critical over coming weeks and months is the central role of Stormont leaders in communicating with the public.

Political disharmony, mixed messaging and a lack of data have featured heavily throughout the devolved government's handling of the pandemic in Northern Ireland.

Last month's bitter Executive wrangling over partial lifting of restrictions - only for them to be imposed again a week later - was hugely damaging and eroded public confidence.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill took to the podium at yesterday's press conference and insisted there was "unity of purpose" among her powersharing colleagues to "roll this vaccine out and make it a success".

That "unity" will be key as ministers and their departments manage not just the enormous challenge of distributing the vaccine but also convincing people to 'buy in' and get the jab.

In order to control the virus and prevent further deaths, a vaccination uptake rate of between 50 percent to 70 percent is required.

Legitimate concerns will be raised by some who are anxious about vaccines and it will government's role to flood them with information and assurances around its safety and effectiveness.

Executive cohesion around this messaging is a must as the 'trickle down' to the public will be felt.

Previous mistakes such as spats over mask wearing - as late as August DUP MP Sammy Wilson was dismissing their benefits and questioning expert research - cannot afford to be repeated.

As healthcare workers and most vulnerable prepare to receive their first doses and a second 'lockdown' week looms, the vaccine offers a real possibility of returning to some semblance of normality by next year.

The end is within reach. While the final yards are often the hardest, the onus is on both the public and elected representatives to double down and cross them.


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