Older and vulnerable people in Northern Ireland are likely to be offered an updated vaccination in the autumn to combat new variants of Covid-19, the chief scientific adviser has said.
Professor Ian Young has said he believes the region is approaching the peak of another wave of the virus and added that the number infected is likely to rise above one in 25.
Last week it was announced that the self-isolation guidance for those with Covid-19 in Northern Ireland has been reduced to five days in light of the risk posed by the virus.
Professor Young said he believed despite the high rate of infections, the number would begin to fall over the summer.
It is likely that we will offer updated vaccinations certainly to older people and those who might be considered vulnerable as we move into the autumnProfessor Ian Young
He told the BBC Talkback programme: “The vaccines which we have had in the past have played a really vital part in terms of our response to the epidemic. They continue to provide protection against severe illness.
“Unfortunately with the new variants, BA4, BA5, people can become re-infected with those even when they have been vaccinated and therefore it is likely that we will offer updated vaccinations certainly to older people and those who might be considered vulnerable as we move into the autumn.
“I think at the moment people are working hard in developing and modifying the vaccine so that they provide better protection against these variants and future variants.”
He added: “There is some interim advice from JCVI that focuses on older people being over 65
“It may well be that as the data and evidence is kept under review that that age falls to include somewhat younger people. The vulnerable will be those who fall into a range of categories due to underlying illness.
“It is also very likely, as with flu vaccines, that we will offer boosters to people working in health and social care or in close contact with those who are vulnerable.”
However, Professor Young said booster vaccinations were not likely to be offered to younger, healthy people as the forms of Covid circulating usually cause “relatively mild illness”.
He said: “At the moment we are close to the peak of another wave of Covid caused principally by the BA4, BA5 variants.
“One person in 25 was infected during the week in the course of the most recent population survey.
“I would think it is possible that those numbers will rise before hopefully beginning to fall over the summer.
“If it is possible for large groups to congregate outside then the risk of transmission there is very low. If there are large groups meeting in indoor settings with poor ventilation then people should consider using face coverings.
“There will be some risk of transmission in those settings, that I think is unavoidable.
“I understand that people who feel particularly vulnerable will be very nervous given that we know that quite a lot of Covid is circulation.
“I think for those people there is a need to be cautious in terms of behaviours. It would be better to avoid those crowded indoor places and to try to keep distance and try to use face coverings.”
At the moment the number of patients in hospital with Covid is probably around two thirds of what it was during the peakProfessor Ian Young
Professor Young said there were still a large number of people in hospital with Covid-19.
“Many of those people will not be in hospital because of Covid, they will be in hospital for other reasons, but the fact that they have Covid means there is an additional burden of care as far as the hospitals are concerned and additional hospitals need to be taken.
“I think we are always concerned about the pressures our hospitals are under.
“At the moment the number of patients in hospital with Covid is probably around two thirds of what it was during the peak, which is quite significant for the summer period.”