'Significant milestone' as Belfast's SSE Arena opens for mass Covid vaccination
One of the north's largest live events arenas has opened as a mass vaccination centre.
The SSE Arena in Belfast will have the capacity to administer jabs to 40,000 people a week.
A slowdown in the UK's vaccine supply lines will see the centre processing around 11,000 people a week initially, with the numbers ramping up as more AstraZeneca jabs become available.
The arena floor has the capacity for 60 separate vaccination stations.
Health Minister @RobinSwannMoH says the opening of a mass vaccination centre at the SEE arena in Belfast represents a “great opportunity” for NI.— Q Radio News (@qnewsdesk) March 29, 2021
Minister Swann says we’re looking at a greater regional approach and local approach to tackling Covid-19. pic.twitter.com/wJAOcvWYsC
It is operating as a mass vaccination site for the whole of Northern Ireland.
Several regional centres will continue to administer vaccines, as will GP surgeries.
From today, more than 300 community pharmacies will also become involved in the vaccine rollout.
The SSE Arena is the home of the Belfast Giants ice hockey team, and prior to the pandemic was the north's main venue for indoor concerts.
Its opening as a mass vaccination centre was originally expected to be accompanied by an expansion of the vaccine programme to take in the 40-49 age cohort.
That move has been delayed by a number of weeks due to the recent issues with the delivery of UK-wide orders of AstraZeneca jabs from overseas.
AstraZeneca and Pfizer jabs are currently being administered in Northern Ireland, with Moderna doses expected to be added to the rollout in the coming weeks.
As of Monday, 855,488 vaccines had been administered in Northern Ireland, with 730,471 first doses and 125,017 second doses.
The north is on course to offer first jabs to the entire adult population - 1.4 million - by July.
Gary Davidson from Lisbane in Co Down was the first to get a vaccine in the SSE Arena on Monday morning.
The 55-year-old was last at the venue with his sons to watch a motocross event.
"I feel very proud to see what's going on in the SSE in Belfast," he said.
"I feel as if I am protected and hopefully won't be able to pass it on to relatives."
Mr Davidson added: "I didn't think I would ever be here for this, but I'm very impressed by what's going on in the health department."
First Minister Arlene Foster, Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill and Health Minister Robin Swann visited the centre this morning.
Ms Foster said the start of operations at the arena was another step on the road to a safer future.
"The opening of The SSE Arena as a regional vaccination centre is a significant milestone in the rollout of our vaccination programme," she said.
Ms O'Neill added: "Seeing this centre in operation illustrates yet again the amazing efforts by all parts of the health and social care family.
"Efforts not only to deliver the vaccination programme but in every aspect of their response to the pandemic, as they have worked tirelessly to care for and protect our people.
"We are all looking forward to brighter days and every jab helps takes us further down the pathway towards a better and safer future."
Mr Swann said Northern Ireland had already made "huge inroads" in delivering the vaccine to over half of the adult population
"The opening of this centre will enable the programme to expand at an even quicker rate and I hope to announce very soon that I will be opening the programme to additional age cohorts to allow more of those eligible to book their vaccination," he said.
Mr Swann has said any move to give supply of coronavirus vaccine to the Republic will have to be a UK gesture.
He said it was not for the Stormont executive to make that gesture but said he thought it would be right for the gesture to be made when the UK has surplus vaccine.
"I think that openness and that neighbourliness should be something we should be encouraging as well because it makes sense that we're all at the same level of vaccination across all these islands," he said.
"So it's something that I would encourage, it's something that I've raised with the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, that when the UK does get to that stage that we do make that gesture because it's the right thing to do."
He added: "My responsibility is to the people of Northern Ireland so as of our operation here today, my key aim is to get as many people in Northern Ireland vaccinated as quickly as possible.
"We hope to have everyone receive their first vaccination by the end of July."
Mr Swann said he did not think authorities in the north would judge when to reopen society from coronavirus restrictions based on the Republic's vaccination rate.
"It would be unfair to do that to the people of Northern Ireland because our vaccine programme is meeting our needs," he said.
"In the Republic of Ireland, I've heard the taoiseach say they hope to catch up in a couple of weeks or a month's time, so that's something we would like to see."
He described the difference in vaccine rates as "simply down to supply chains".
"We're part of the UK pre-bought programme which bought into seven different vaccine sources even before they had been authorised, and the Republic has tied in with the European Union's vaccine purchasing programme, and we're seeing the challenges that has brought but we're also hopeful that any difficulties between the UK and EU or Oxford/AstraZeneca will be ironed out and ironed out very soon because this shouldn't be about politics, this is about public health."
Ms Foster echoed Mr Swann's comments.
"If there is surplus vaccine then we should share it with our nearest neighbours out of neighbourliness but also out of the fact it will have an impact of course on us here in Northern Ireland so there's a very practical reason why I believe that should happen," she said.
Mrs Foster said she is "disappointed for our friends and colleagues in the Republic of Ireland that the European programme has not delivered for them".
"I have been making the point that our prime minister should have those conversations and when I am next speaking to him again I will make that point again," she said.