A leading GP has raised concerns that the 'pausing' of the flu jab programme for under-65s here may delay the roll-out of planned vaccine clinics this winter.
Dr Laurence Dorman, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners NI (RCGPNI), yesterday branded the development "hugely disappointing".
The Public Health Agency (PHA) said it has "temporarily paused" the supply of vaccines for eligible patients under the age of 65 until at least mid-November due to a delay in obtaining further flu jabs.
Concerns had been raised last month that demand would outstrip supply due to Covid as the traditional flu season begins.
Alliance health spokesperson Paula Bradshaw has now demanded "clarity" from Health Minister Robin Swann on the matter.
Dr Dorman said GPs and their teams across Northern Ireland have gone "above and beyond" to deliver this year's flu vaccination programme by utilising community spaces, church halls and car parks to hold clinics.
"We have been delighted to see unprecedented distribution of the flu vaccine across Northern Ireland, showing that patients have heard the message loud and clear regarding the importance of being vaccinated this year in particular," he said.
"It is hugely disappointing that distribution of the vaccine has been interrupted due to pressures on global supply and no further supplies of the vaccine are currently available.
"This may cause delay in the delivery of planned flu clinics across the region. We hope this will be resolved as soon as possible so that as many of our eligible patients can be protected."
Dr Gerry Waldron, head of Health Protection at the PHA, insisted the measure was necessary due to the "phenomenal" demand for flu jabs, with more than half a million vaccinations recorded so far.
"Primary care, pharmacy colleagues and Trusts have adapted admirably to the challenges of coronavirus to enable key groups to get vaccinated, and along with the rest of the UK we are now reaching full uptake of the allocated stock," he continued.
"Indeed, we have distributed more vaccines in the past few weeks than the entirety of previous flu seasons."
The PHA last night said in a statement that it had ordered 1.04m vaccine doses for the 2020-21 flu season, adding as it was a "worldwide issue" it will take a number of weeks for the vaccine to be delivered and distributed, with a plan to reopen ordering in mid-November.
Dr Waldron added: "I know this will cause some concern for people who are awaiting vaccination, but I would like to provide reassurance that people will still get the vaccine well in time before we anticipate that flu will be circulating widely in the community. It is also worth noting that the steps we are urging people to take to help protect themselves against coronavirus - maintaining social distancing, washing your hands regularly and wearing a face covering where appropriate - will also help protect against flu."
Ms Bradshaw insisted Mr Swann must address the issue after he gave assurances in the Assembly two weeks ago that enough doses had been secured for those who are contacted to get the jab. "However, already in mid-October we hear the programme will be paused for under-65s pending further supplies," she said.
"This causes significant concern among many people of working age with underlying conditions or their carers... or those who feel they would benefit from the protection of a vaccine. The minister talked of 'assurances from health professionals' but we urgently need a public statement on what the position actually is."
The health department yesterday referred this newspaper to the PHA for comment in relation to Ms Bradshaw's comments.