The Covid-19 vaccination programme for care home residents is not likely to begin until the start of January, it has emerged.
he characteristics of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, which was approved by regulators on Wednesday, mean that it is not suitable for use on Northern Ireland’s 16,000 care home residents.
The Department of Health said on Wednesday night that it hoped an alternative vaccine would be made available to care home residents and people aged 80 and over from January 4.
The news emerged comes after Health Minister Robin Swann warned the public against dropping their guard against the deadly pandemic as he revealed details of the mass vaccination programme.
Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Swann described the approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) as “hugely momentous and significant”.
He said: “Today, thankfully, we can look to the future with some genuine hope in our hearts. We can look forward to a time when the weight of the past year starts to be lifted from our shoulders.”
First Minister Arlene Foster described it as an early “Christmas present”.
“This does give us the road back to normality and I think everybody has been waiting for that,” she said. “I’m incredibly proud today that the UK has been able to do this and that we will all benefit from this vaccine coming.”
However, the Health Minister urged the public to continue to follow health guidance and refused to rule out the possibility of a third wave of the pandemic and a further lockdown in the new year.
Mr Swann also explained some of the challenges facing officials as they prepare to roll out the most complex vaccination programme ever undertaken here.
While the Army has provided logistical advice on the matter, it will not have any further involvement in the delivery of the vaccine, which will instead be administered by health trust staff, GPs and pharmacists. It was reported on Wednesday that care home residents would be the first people to receive the vaccine because of advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
However, Mr Swann said the JCVI had acknowledged its recommendations may not be practical due to the nature of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The shot has to be stored at between -70C and -80C and must be prepared by a pharmacist.
This means it is not possible for jabs to be delivered by staff in the mobile units that will visit care homes.
Instead, it is to be administered across seven sites that will allow large-scale vaccinations to take place safely and effectively.
As a result, healthcare staff and care home staff who can travel to the vaccination clinics will be the first people to receive the new vaccine.
The Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine was on Wednesday night emerging as the frontrunner for care home residents because it can be stored in a fridge and is therefore easier to transport.
It has an overall efficacy of 70% and, at £3 per dose, costs considerably less than the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which costs £15 per shot. However, it has not yet been deemed safe by MHRA.
A spokeswoman from the Department of Health said on Wednesday night: “In keeping with the JCVI recognition for the need for flexibility in implementation given different vaccine characteristics, we also expect other vaccines to become available shortly which will enable care home residents and the oldest members of our society to be vaccinated.
“This part of the rollout is expected to start on January 4.”