Supply issue 'will only see slight delay in NI vaccine roll-out'

The head of Northern Ireland's vaccination programme says delays in sourcing AstraZeneca jabs in the UK will not have a significant impact on the scheduled roll-out in the region.

Speaking at Stormont's health committee, Patricia Donnelly said plans had been flexed to make more use of Pfizer jabs pending the arrival of further AstraZeneca stock.

It comes after the NHS warned the UK is set to experience a "significant reduction" in vaccine supply from the end of this month.

Ms Donnelly said all first Covid-19 jab appointments already booked will be honoured and those expecting a second jab will also receive it.

She said that the delivery issues could knock back the rollout plan by four weeks in a "worst case scenario", but the delay was more likely to be around two weeks.

"The mitigation measures that we put in place we hope will only delay us by two weeks, so it won't have a huge impact," she told the committee on Thursday.

More than 704,000 coronavirus vaccines have now been administered in Northern Ireland, including some 640,00 first doses.

Health Minister Robin Swann says the roll-out is "presently ahead of schedule" and will continue in the coming weeks.

The Department of Health says appointments for first and second doses will continue to be honoured in Northern Ireland and advised those who are eligible to "get the jab".

In a statement, Dr Alan Stout from BMA Northern Ireland said it is "frustrating but perhaps unsurprising" that there are potential issues with the supply of vaccines.

"This is a UK-wide problem, however I am hopeful that Department of Health will address this issue as a matter of urgency," he said.

"Practices remain fully committed to vaccinating their patients as quickly as they possibly can.”

Meanwhile, community pharmacies will join the vaccination roll-out from the end of this month, with more than 300 signing up to the programme.

Mr Swann says their contribution to getting as many people vaccinated as possible “will be invaluable”.

The official launch of the roll-out to community pharmacies will be on 30 March, but the department says it is expected that many will have started before then.

Chief Executive of Community Pharmacy NI Gerard Greene said: “This is a fantastic and welcome step forward. 

“The accessibility and reach of the community pharmacy network, with pharmacists as skilled vaccinators, means they are well equipped to take part in the vaccine programme and further contribute to the pandemic response.”

In addition, the opening of the new mass vaccination centre at the SSE Arena in Belfast is due to take place on 29 March.