Health Minister Robin Swann has welcomed news that the military is to support the rollout of the local Covid-19 vaccination programme.
Northern Ireland received its largest delivery of jabs this week ahead of the planned opening of a mass vaccination centre at Belfast’s SSE Arena within weeks. Officials hope to be able to administer 40,000 shots a week.
It is unclear what role the military will play and whether personnel will be involved in logistics, providing a supporting role at vaccination centres, or if they will administer the vaccine.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “I authorised the deployment of 100 defence medics to support the vaccine rollout in Northern Ireland from the end of this month.
“Our Armed Forces are once again stepping up to support the UK’s response to the pandemic, working around the clock to protect our people in all four corners of the nation.”
Mr Swann said it will help accelerate the vaccination programme in Northern Ireland.
He added: “It is very welcome that our vaccinator numbers are being boosted, as we move into an expansion of the programme.
“The military support confirmed today is being provided following my formal request.”
DUP MLA Pam Cameron, the vice-chair of the Stormont health committee, said it was a boost to the vaccine drive.
“This is fantastic news and once again demonstrates the strength and depth of the national commitment to supporting the fight against Covid-19 in every region of our United Kingdom,” she said.
“The addition of 100 medically trained military personnel will provide a welcome boost to the health and social care staff who have thus far spearheaded a highly successful rollout of the vaccine across our province.
“Their arrival will coincide with the launch of the mass vaccination centre at the SSE Arena and will help to ensure the next phase of the programme targeted at the general population runs as smoothly and effectively as possible.”
Official figures released yesterday suggested the Kent variant of the virus — now the dominant strain in Northern Ireland — was hindering attempts to bring the pandemic under control.
The number of people diagnosed with Covid-19 over the past seven days rose by 6% compared to the previous week.
According to the Department of Health’s daily dashboard, 1,311 new cases were diagnosed over the past seven days, compared to 1,238 over the previous seven-day period.
A department spokesman said: “Data suggests that the B-117 (Kent) variant now accounts for 80% of infections
“That means in circumstances where people are having more contacts, the epidemic will grow even more quickly than it has done previously.
“This is something that we all need to be cognitive of as we gradually begin to ease out of restrictions in the weeks and months ahead.”
The Office for National Statistics’ weekly Covid bulletin, also released yesterday, showed more people in Northern Ireland were infected with the virus than in Scotland and Wales at the end of last week.
But there were fewer people here infected than in England, where one in 270 was infected.
The report said: “In Northern Ireland, the percentage of people testing positive appears to have levelled off in the week ending March 6. We estimate that 5,900 people in Northern Ireland had Covid-19, equating to around one in 310 people.”
The latest bulletin from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) showed another decline in the number of people losing their lives as a result of Covid-19.
There were 22 local Covid deaths recorded between February 23 and March 5 — down from 44 the previous week.
It was the sixth week in a row in which there was a drop in the number of death certificates citing coronavirus.
According to Nisra, there have been 2,845 Covid-related deaths in Northern Ireland since the start of the pandemic.
A further 208 new cases and one death were recorded in the past 24 hours. However, the number of Covid-19 inpatients is falling — down to 156 from two months ago, when there were 751.
The seven-day case rate has also dropped considerably since then, falling to 1,311 from 8,802 on January 12.