Health Minister Robin Swann has said that he wants to have a conversation with his Executive colleagues about how to incentivise people who have not yet received a Covid vaccination to come forward.
Mr Swann made the comments after Economy Minister Gordon Lyons rejected his suggestion that a high street shopping voucher scheme could be made available only to those who had been double-vaccinated.
The Health Minister also revealed that a number of community pharmacies will soon be offering the Moderna vaccine as Northern Ireland’s mass vaccination centres begin to wind down.
Mr Swann had earlier said that he would be interested in linking the high street voucher scheme to vaccinations as an incentive to persuade more people to get jabbed.
A number of hospitals in Northern Ireland are struggling to cope with a surge in Covid-19 admissions, and the Belfast Trust has said that 60% of people admitted to hospitals in its area have not been vaccinated.
Stormont’s Department of Economy announced the high street voucher scheme last year to support traders hit by lockdown restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The scheme would see individuals issued with pre-paid cards of a value of up to £100, which could be used in shops, but not online.
But a spokesperson for Economy Minister Gordon Lyons said: “Such a suggestion would create unnecessary bureaucracy, throws up a range of legal issues and could ultimately jeopardise the entire scheme.”
Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts added: “I understand where Minister Swann is coming from and fully agree with him on the need to increase the numbers of those getting both vaccines, but he is wrong to link this to the high street voucher.
“It is a non-runner.”
In response Mr Swann said: “I think part of the conversation is how to incentivise the further 17.5% to come forward and get the vaccination.
But there is an avenue of actually looking for incentives in regards to getting those last people to come forward to actually come forwardRobin Swann
“I think Gordon has indicated it could put the high street scheme in jeopardy or delay it if that was an avenue that was to be pursued and that is not something that I want to do, because I think the people of Northern Ireland have waited long enough in getting the high scheme voucher out.
“But there is an avenue of actually looking for incentives in regards to getting those last people to come forward to actually come forward.
“We have seen it at the SSE Arena where we have offered ice-creams along with vaccines, so it is how we actually we actually take the next step.”
Mr Swann added: “It is a conversation that the Executive has said in the past that they are willing to have.
“If the high scheme voucher scheme isn’t a runner, I am content with that, but it shouldn’t rule out any conversations in the future that the Executive could have in regards to incentivisation over uptake of vaccines.
“Our target is to get as many people vaccinated as possible and that is what we will continue to do by making vaccines as accessible to as many people as we currently can.”
Mr Swann said large scale vaccination centres would begin to be stood down in the coming weeks.
He added: “As we scale back we are then starting to deliver Moderna across our community pharmacies.
“We will see 18 community pharmacies sometime soon picking up Moderna, and that will increase to 80 community pharmacies across Northern Ireland being able to deliver first dose Moderna, as well as the pop-up clinics we are seeing across Northern Ireland.
“Our vaccine programme isn’t something we force upon people, it is something we ask people to do voluntarily.”
Meanwhile, three more deaths of patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 have been notified by the Department of Health.
A further 1,473 cases of the virus have been reported in Northern Ireland, the department said.
On Tuesday morning, there were 243 Covid-19 positive patients in hospital, with 29 in intensive care.
In total, 2,215,383 vaccines have been administered.