Warning of 'long and difficult' path ahead until population is vaccinated
NORTHERN Ireland faces a "long and difficult" path until enough people have been vaccinated for Covid-19, Robin Swann has warned.
With the first jabs expected to take place next week, the health minister said up to 70 per cent of the population will need to be immune before life returns fully to normal.
Healthcare workers, care home residents and those aged 80 or above are in the first priority groups at the start of a massive logistical exercise.
Around 25,000 doses of the newly approved Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are expected to arrive next week.
The Department of Health also said it expects "other vaccines to become available shortly."
"In keeping with the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccintion and Immunisation) recognition for the need for flexibility in implementation given different vaccine characteristics we also expect other vaccines to become available shortly which will enable care home residents and the oldest members of our society to be vaccinated," a spokesman told the Irish News.
At an Executive media briefing yesterday evening, Mr Swann said vaccines were the most effective way to prevent infectious diseases.
"So today is a good day, make no mistake about it, but remember we have many more steps along this long and difficult path to go."
He also referred to the number of new daily coronavirus cases in the north, which he said remained "too high".
Four more deaths were confirmed yesterday by the Department of Health. Another 416 people tested positive for the virus, bringing the total number of cases over the last seven days to 2,601.
There are 435 people with Covid-19 in hospitals across the north with 37 of these in intensive care beds and 29 on ventilators.
Total bed occupancy is at 99 per cent with four hospitals operating beyond capacity.
First Minister Arlene Foster told the briefing she was keen that there be no significant time lag in vaccines being made available in care homes.
The Ulster Hospital in Belfast has been designated as one of seven early vaccination points and will give healthcare workers the jab.
It is planning to administer doses to 1,300 frontline workers a day. It will run seven days a week and 12 hours a day until at least early February.
Mrs Foster said the vaccine's regulatory approval marked a major step forward.
She said: "It is the breakthrough that we have all been hoping for and praying for, this is our pathway back to normality.
"Back to a world where we can hug our wider family and friends, able to mark major life events together, both happy and sad, and where we can freely enjoy travel and leisure activities and work and socialise with colleagues."
Mrs Foster said among the first to receive doses would be 16,000 care home residents and 32,000 staff, plus 71,000 health and care staff and just over 80,000 people aged 80 or over.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said: "A vaccination to protect you and your family from Covid-19 will be available.
"We should all take some comfort from that.
"It will take some months to roll out the vaccine to everyone and I want to assure you that we will be doing all that we can to make sure that that happens as quickly and as smoothly as possible."
In the Republic, health officials confirmed five further deaths from Covid-19 and 270 more cases.
There has now been a total of 2,074 Covid-19 related deaths and 73,066 cases in the south.
A total of 31 people were being treated for Covid-19 in ICU.
Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan last night said the Republic now had the lowest 14-day incidence of Covid-19 in the EU.
He urged everyone to keep up the progress achieved following the lifting of stringent level 5 restrictions on Monday.
"We need to hold firm to this position. As the country moves into Level 3, there is no room for complacency in our response to Covid-19," he said.