Northern Ireland’s vaccine programme is to ramp up again with a series of vaccination booster clinics rolled out in a bid to protect more people against the emerging Omicron variant of Covid-19.
Robin Swann made the announcement as Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) recommended booster jabs should be offered to any adult over the age of 18.
The health minister said the guidance from the JCVI was welcome and explained the booster programme will now work its way down the age groups similar to the initial vaccine rollout.
He said booster doses will be given to people here “as quickly as possible”, with plans for Health Trust vaccination hubs and clinics.
The pharmacy sector is also preparing to run a a special weekend of additional walk-in booster vaccination clinics this Saturday and Sunday.
The recent emergence of the Omicron variant in various countries including parts of the UK has led to a push for greater vaccination uptake.
While no cases have yet been detected in Northern Ireland, a number of cases of the new variant have been in both England and Scotland.
Northern Ireland’s deputy chief medical officer Lourda Geoghegan told BBC NI said it was likely cases of the variant would be confirmed in the “coming days and weeks”.
There are fears that it could be more infectious and less responsive to vaccines, however studies have not yet been concluded to determine this, with the Health Minister describing it “very likely” vaccination will continue to offer protection against severe illness.
Mr Swann said: “I would again urge people not to be put off getting their first, second or booster doses due to concerns or speculation about the Omicron variant.
“It remains very likely that vaccination will continue to protect against severe illness from Omicron as it does against other variants of SARS-CoV-2.
“In addition, our vaccines provide very good protection against the Delta variant, which remains the predominant strain in Northern Ireland at this point.”
While the JCVI have made their recommendation that booster jabs should be offered to any adult over 18-years-old, the Department of Health and vaccination programme will not yet offer the jab to all age groups.
The head of the vaccination programme Patricia Donnelly said Northern Ireland would continue to work down the age groups.
Instead, in the first instance, most Trust vaccination hubs and clinics will principally focus on boosters for the over 50s.
Anyone in this category should be called by their GP but can also attend Community Pharmacy or Trust Centres if they have not yet received their booster.
Trust centres are also providing ongoing first and second doses for all eligible age groups, and will open soon to the 40-49 year olds for their booster doses.
The JCVI also said the minimum gap between the second vaccine dose and booster should be reduced from six to three months.
The experts also said children aged 12-15 should be invited for a second jab.
Patricia Donnelly, head of NI’s vaccination programme, said: “We need to make the best use of all our vaccinators across our health and care system, which is why we have to divide up responsibilities at this point.
“I want to thank all those people who have come forward in the last year to be vaccinators - we need you and ask that you step forward to support us once again in this important expansion of the programme.
“The roll-out of boosters to the entire adult population will be on a staged basis, given the JCVI recommendation and the required gap between second dose and booster.”
Most Trust vaccination hubs are offering both walk-in and booked appointments.
Bookings can be made online at https://covid-19.hscni.net/get-vaccinated/.
A list of pharmacies offering the booster jab is available on the Health and Social Care Board website www.hscboard.hscni.net/booster-covid19-vaccination/.
Ulster Hospital and Lagan Valley Hospital vaccination centres are open for walk-ins and booking appointments for boosters and first and second doses of Pfizer for all eligible age groups. Clinics will also be held this weekend in Downshire Hospital, Downpatrick
Walk-in vaccinations available for:
First dose Pfizer: age 12 +
First & Second dose Pfizer: age 16 +
Boosters: age 40 +
An Chroi Community Centre, Hillcrest Road, Waterside.
Omagh Leisure Centre, Omagh
15 December to 21 December
Centres will be open seven days a week, 9.00am-4.30pm each day except for Mondays and Thursdays when they will instead open 12.00pm-8.00pm to facilitate evening appointments.
Bookings are now live for all centres. Walk-ins will also be facilitated at each site.
The Northern Trust vaccination centre at Seven Towers Leisure Centre is open this week for bookings only, 9am-5pm, Monday to Sunday (closed 12.30-1pm)
Next week they are changing hours to offer evening clinics, so it will be 12-8pm Monday to Friday and 9am-5pm Saturday and Sunday.