Preparations are well under way to begin the rollout of a Covid-19 vaccination programme from next month, Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann has said.
The plans include fixed mass centres for receiving the jab and the deployment of mobile units to care homes.
GPs and community pharmacists will also have a key role to play as the programme progresses next year and large numbers of staff have already been recruited.
Around 600 people have also expressed an interest in becoming vaccinators, Mr Swann said.
Will there be a point that we will see Covid not being with us? I don't think so in the next two to three yearsRobin Swann
He said that group, which included retired healthcare professionals, would need to receive the vaccination as a priority.
“The planned mass vaccination programme will be a major logistical exercise lasting many months, taking us to the middle of next year at least,” said the minister.
“While I am cautious by nature, I am optimistic that vaccination will increasingly do the heavy lifting for us in 2021 in the battle against coronavirus.
“I am also very heartened by the scale of the preparatory work already undertaken for a vaccination programme in Northern Ireland.”
Regulatory approval has not yet been issued, so any planning will be provisional.
The minister said he anticipated a rolling vaccination programme lasting for several years.
“Will there be a point that we will see Covid not being with us? I don’t think so in the next two to three years,” he said.
“So these vaccination programmes may become part of the norm as flu vaccination programmes are.”
Mr Swann said the Ministry of Defence had been advising Stormont on the logistical preparations for the introduction of the vaccination programme.
He said he would not hesitate to ask for military assistance if required during the rollout of the plan.
“It’s always been something I said I would never be shy of using,” he said.
“They come with that knowledge and support of logistics that reinforces some of the messages that we are doing.”
The minister said the requirement to keep the Pfizer vaccine at extremely low temperatures presented a key challenge in respect of storage.
He said that product also came in batches of 1,000 doses which all had to be used at the same time.
As such, he said it would have to be administered to groups in multiples of a thousand.
“We can’t afford to see wastage,” he said.
Mr Swann said there was a need to observe patients for 15 minutes after the vaccine was administered.
“So when it comes to managing social distancing and the logistics around that, it starts to make the suitability and the sourcing of venues that (much) more challenging,” he said.
Northern Ireland will be guided by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on which groups will receive the vaccine first.
It is essential that people do not relax their guard against Covid-19 now, just because hopes are rising on the vaccine frontRobin Swann
It is expected that care home residents and health and social care workers will be the first priority groups, and further groups in early 2021 will be based on age and clinical vulnerability.
A public information campaign will encourage take-up and touch on issues concerning safety and the robustness of the regulatory process.
Mr Swann added: “The progress towards a vaccine is highly impressive and extremely welcome. However, I have to reiterate that regulatory hurdles have still to be cleared so we should take nothing for granted.
“It is essential that people do not relax their guard against Covid-19 now, just because hopes are rising on the vaccine front.
“We have to keep doing all the right things to protect ourselves against the virus and that will remain the case for the foreseeable future.”
Thursday’s Executive meeting was given an update on the preparations by Patricia Donnelly, head of the vaccine programme.
They will be deployed as they become available.
It is expected that each person will require two doses.