Northern Ireland news

Covid: Ministers told of potential need for ‘significant intervention' after Christmas

Most hospitals in the north are operating beyond capacity. Picture by Peter Byrne, Press Association
David Young, PA

Significant intervention could be required in Northern Ireland immediately after Christmas to keep Covid-19 inpatient numbers below 1,000, ministers have been told.

A Department of Health modelling paper said that would be the scenario facing the Executive if Omicron turns out to be “close” to the severity of the Delta variant.

The peak of Covid-19 hospital inpatient numbers during the pandemic in Northern Ireland was 1,055 in January this year.

The paper, seen by the PA news agency, was circulated to ministers ahead of today's meeting of the Executive. It outlined how Omicron was expected to spread in the north.

Officials stressed that the severity of the variant remained “uncertain” and it was likely that booster vaccinations would offer protection against severe illness.

“It is likely that a peak in case numbers will occur in the middle third of January, with hospital admissions and occupancy peaking in late January/early February,” the paper added.

“The extent of the hospital peak will depend on the severity of Omicron illness, but without further measures is likely to exceed numbers observed earlier in the epidemic, potentially several fold.”

The paper said data from England and Scotland expected in the next week or two will allow the initial modelling estimates for Northern Ireland to be “refined”.

It added: “However, if Omicron is associated with disease severity close to that of Delta, significant intervention would be required immediately after Christmas at the latest to have a reasonable chance of keeping hospital inpatient numbers at less than 1,000.”

No significant announcements on Covid restrictions are expected after today's Executive with the meeting instead being billed as an opportunity for ministers to assess the data around Omicron.

Details of the modelling paper emerged after it was confirmed that Northern Ireland’s booster rollout will further accelerate next week when vaccination centres open to the over-18s.

Some GP and community pharmacies are already offering jabs to the 18-29 age cohort.

Another briefing document from Health Minister Robin Swann, which was sent to fellow ministers last night, sets out the next steps in the booster drive.

The document, also seen by PA, states that health trust vaccination hubs will open to 18 to 29-year-olds on a walk-in basis from Monday.

People in that age group will be able to book appointments from Wednesday.

The paper was circulated ahead of a meeting of the Executive today.

At the meeting, ministers will receive an update from health officials on the threat posed by the Omicron variant.

Large queues have formed at trust centres this week after the programme opened to over-30s.

Some GPs and community pharmacies are already delivering jabs to over-18s and more of those facilities will open to that cohort next week.

Mr Swann outlined plans to extend capacity at existing hubs and reactivate other mass vaccination centres, including the Foyle Arena in Derry and the South Lake leisure centre in Craigavon, Co Armagh.

He said there are also plans to set up other fixed and mobile vaccination facilities.

Yesterday, chief medical officer said he was “more concerned than at any previous point in the pandemic”, amid warnings over the rapid spread of the new variant.

Sir Michael McBride urged all adults to get a booster vaccine as he and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young said Omicron is likely to become the dominant strain in Northern Ireland before the new year.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has called on Chancellor Rishi Sunak to stand up the furlough scheme again so it will be ready and available for workers if more severe restrictions are needed in the weeks ahead.

Ms O’Neill said Northern Ireland cannot be held to ransom over Covid-19 financial support and be left waiting for decisions to be taken in England.

She expressed concern that the potential reintroduction of UK-wide financial support measures, such as furlough, will be dictated by the timing of the British government’s response to the Omicron variant in England.

The joint head of the devolved administration in Belfast claimed the British government has been slow to act in response to the Covid threat in England throughout the pandemic and insisted Northern Ireland should not be forced to delay making decisions until ministers in London take similar steps.

Yesterday, Mr Sunak announced that Northern Ireland is to receive another £75 million to help in the battle against Omicron.

However, the Department of Finance has insisted that £50 million of the sum referred to by the chancellor is not new money and has already been committed to the Executive.

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