Northern Ireland could begin vaccinating people aged over 75 ahead of schedule as further stocks of the AstraZeneca jab are delivered to GP surgeries rolling out the programme, it has emerged.
Patricia Donnelly, who heads up the vaccination programme, has said enough doses of the vaccine have now been delivered to Northern Ireland to enable family doctors to complete vaccination of the over-80s and begin vaccinating people over the age of 75.
Under original plans, vaccination of the over-75 age group was due to commence at the beginning of next month but it now appears this may be brought forward by some GP practices.
Speaking at a briefing yesterday, Ms Donnelly acknowledged the "considerable frustration" over delays in the delivery of the vaccine to over-80s but said that almost half of patients in the cohort have now received the jab and supply issues are likely to improve as time passes.
She said: "With the arrival of additional vaccine today, which we have issued this afternoon and tomorrow to GPs, there will be enough for them to complete the over-80 population and to commence the over-75 population.
"In parallel, we have begun to plan for the priority groups four, the over-70s and the extremely clinically vulnerable, many of whom are known to hospital services and we will be asking trusts to take some of those individuals and ensure they are vaccinated."
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's top doctor said the easing of restrictions in Northern Ireland is "some time away yet".
Dr Michael McBride, Northern Ireland's chief medical officer (CMO), said levels of transmission of Covid-19 and the pressures on the health service mean that it is not safe to consider lifting the lockdown: "I think the easing of restrictions is some time away yet in my view."
The Northern Ireland Executive is due to meet tomorrow to discuss the current lockdown, after originally stating the measures put in place at Christmas would remain in place until February 6.
Dr McBride said the lockdown has been effective in reducing the R number for community transmission in Northern Ireland, which he said has been below 1 for a number of weeks, but he warned pressure on hospitals remain high.
It also emerged yesterday that an estimated one in 13 people in Northern Ireland would have tested positive for antibodies to Covid-19 by December last year.
The figure comes from the Office for National Statistic's Covid-19 Infection Survey, which is based on the proportion of the population who are likely to have tested positive for antibodies to Covid-19, based on blood test results from a sample of people aged 16 and over.