Northern Ireland news

Glitterballs and jabs: SSE Arena transformed as new vaccination centre opens

As a landmark venue for live events was transformed into a mass vaccination centre, health correspondent Seanín Graham reported on its "momentous" opening day

The SSE Arena in Belfast opened as a mass vaccination centre yesterday. Picture by Hugh Russell
Seanín Graham

THE last time I was in Belfast's SSE Arena was two months before lockdown when it was awash with sequins and fake tan as Strictly's Kelvin Fletcher gyrated to the samba.

Driving across the city through yesterday morning's mizzle, the joy of pre-pandemic nights out felt aeons ago as an overhead sign on the M3 displayed a large arrow with 'vaccine centre' lit up in orange.

Masked up, we were guided by a team of marshals to the home of the Belfast Giants ice hockey team following its selection as the main centre for the mass vaccination of the north's population against coronavirus.

By 8am a trickle of a queue was growing and we were ushered through a side door as arena staff radioed that there was "now 30 outside".

Passing photographs of Dolly Parton, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John - all have played sell-out gigs at the venue many still refer to as 'the Odyssey' - it was surreal to again climb the flights of stairs where you would normally clutch concert ticket among heaving crowds.

The large amphitheatre has been transformed by an army of staff into 60 'stations' or booths where up to 40,000 jabs a week will be administered in what is undoubtedly the north's success story during the pandemic.

Journalists, photographers and camera crews took up the first three rows of what are normally the more expensive seats as the doors opened and socially distanced members of the public calmly filed in.

Doses were swiftly given in what appeared to be a seamless exercise with only the sound of clicking cameras and interviews with Stormont leaders echoing around the vast centre.

A pop of pink was visible throughout as the woman overseeing the extraordinary logistics of the programme darted in and out of the five 'lanes' to ensure its smooth running.

Kelvin Fletcher appeared in the Strictly Come Dancing Live Tour in the Belfast's SSE Arena in late January 2020, two months before lockdown

For Patricia Donnelly, the day felt a "little bit like Christmas".

"You know something good is going to happen but you're worried it's all going to be okay," she said.

"There is great excitement... but you only pause for the briefest moment to enjoy it because actually there are always other things to deal with.

"It's not over yet - so let us not rest on any laurels on this one."

Ms Donnelly said she knew the massive undertaking would be successful due to her "great confidence" in the team chosen to lead it, based at the South Eastern Health trust.

Over the past six weeks, the trust has assembled a workforce of nurses, doctors, pharmacists, administrators, IT support, cleaners and porters in addition to the SSE Arena's own staff including security, front of house, catering and domestics.

Roisin Coulter, a former nurse tasked with directing the project's delivery, admitted there were a lot of sleepless nights.

"It was such a big challenge in terms of scale and pace to set it up within six weeks. We knew we could do deliver it, we've been doing it at the Ulster Hospital where we were up to 1,200 doses a day... but it was so much bigger," she said.

"This is more than just health and social care. We needed to liaise with the PSNI, with councils, with Translink and the SSE Arena team... We've also had to pull in retired staff, military and 72 international nurses."

Ms Coulter said they are preparing to to ramp up "very, very quickly".

"We've put our hearts and soul into this. We're thrilled we've been able to deliver it and want to pay tribute and thanks to everyone involved."

While it will be some time before a glitter ball makes an appearance again at the arena, the significance of the early opening of the venue as a vaccination centre - it was not scheduled until mid-April - cannot be overstated in the north's suppression of the virus and re-opening of society.

For now, we'll have to make do with Strictly re-runs.

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