Vaccination fears for at-risk groups as Northern Ireland GPs step up plans to quit NHS
Life-saving vaccination programmes are under threat as plans for a mass resignation by GPs gathers pace.
Newborn babies, pensioners and pregnant women are among those who will be left at risk of deadly diseases if the action to quit the NHS goes ahead.
Family doctors in Northern Ireland are responsible for delivering vaccinations that provide protection against the likes of measles, mumps, meningitis, flu, shingles, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough.
The British Medical Association (BMA) is currently gathering resignation letters from GP surgeries in Northern Ireland after the Health Minister failed to deliver an agreed rescue package to help struggling practices.
However, health officials have refused to say whether contingency plans are being drawn up to ensure at-risk groups will continue to receive jabs that will stop them from falling ill if the resignations happen.
Health Minister Michelle O'Neill has so far only said that "services will continue to be delivered as normal at this time".
She has failed to respond to a request for information on action her department is taking to discourage GPs from resigning from the NHS, and also refused to say what steps the department is taking to ensure patients will be able to access their GP without having to pay and what is being done to make sure vaccination programmes will continue without interruption.
The Health & Social Care Board (HSCB), which is the body responsible for delivering primary care services, also failed to provide any reassurances to the public.
An HSCB spokeswoman said the Department of Health is taking the lead on the matter.
However, it is understood Ms O'Neill has not met with the BMA since they took the decision to press ahead with the resignations.
If GP surgeries leave the NHS, health officials will be forced to either provide vaccination programmes themselves or negotiate with GPs to do it.
It is thought this will result in the cash-strapped health service having to pay even more than they already do to GPs to deliver this service.
Ms O'Neill - who remains Health Minister until the snap Assembly election next month - has come under fire for her failure to deliver any assurances to the public as the health service in Northern Ireland faces its biggest crisis for a generation.
The UUP's health spokeswoman Jo-Anne Dobson described it as "scandalous" and "extremely worrying to the public".