A mass Covid-19 vaccination programme for Northern Ireland healthcare workers could begin in just over a fortnight, it has emerged.
Health trusts have told staff they are aiming to begin vaccination clinics on December 14 and run them into early 2021.
However, the commencement of the vaccination programme is reliant upon a number of vaccines in late-stage trials getting regulatory approval, which is expected in the coming days.
And some healthcare professionals remain cautious over the likelihood that the programme will get under way by the December 14 target.
One medic said: “It would be fantastic if it did happen but I’m not sure I’m overly optimistic, it might be a bit too much to hope for, but we’ll watch this space and I hope I’m proved wrong.”
Meanwhile, a GP said: “I don’t want to get too excited when we see the difficulties that arose around the flu vaccine and the fact that GP surgeries had to cancel flu jab clinics due to last minute shortages.”
Under the plans being developed by the health trusts, staff will receive the first dose as soon as possible, with the second dose being administered four weeks later.
Earlier in the week, the first and deputy first ministers outlined the plans to ensure as many people as possible receive the vaccine in the coming months.
DUP leader Arlene Foster told a Stormont press briefing Northern Ireland would be in receipt of about four million doses of the vaccine.
She said rollout would start with care home residents and staff, health and social care workers and those aged over 80.
At-risk groups will come next, with the under 50s in the last stage.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said: “By summer 2021 we hope to see that mass programme rolled out to the wider public.”
GPs here are planning to deliver the Covid-19 vaccines for people aged over 80 who do not live in care homes from January 4.
A letter sent to GP practices by the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) advises them to “assume” their vaccination programme will begin on that date and adds “there is a need to plan for the earliest possible commencement” of the programme.
It states that patients receiving the vaccine will require “15 minutes of direct observation” following the injection.
Patients will receive two doses of the vaccine, 28 days apart and it may not possible to administer the vaccine while recipients are in their car, the letter says. Leisure centres are among the venues which could be used during the vaccination programme.
HSCB head of general medical services, Dr Margaret O’Brien said: “Whilst clarity is still required on a number of issues, including the date of approval and delivery of the vaccine, the exact storage requirements and priority groups, the situation is developing at pace and there is a need to plan for the earliest possible commencement of the vaccination programme.
“We do however have enough information to be able to start to plan for a Covid-19 vaccination programme.”
Pharmaceutical companies have been racing to develop effective vaccines and a number of firms have reported promising results.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the body that decides whether treatments are safe for the UK population, has already been asked by the government to assess two different jabs.
Pfizer and BioNTech have said their vaccine is 95% effective, while pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford have claimed their vaccine is 70% effective.
Intensive plans are being drawn up to ensure vaccine programmes can be rolled out as soon as the jabs get approval.
Speaking about the work being done to make vaccines available as quickly as possible, Health Minister Robin Swann said: “I am also very heartened by the scale of the preparatory work already undertaken for a vaccination programme in Northern Ireland.”
The vaccines will be delivered in a number of different ways.
Fixed mass vaccination centres are to be set up, while mobile units will visit care homes to ensure staff and residents get the jab.
GPs and community pharmacists are also developing plans to administer the vaccine to patients as the programme progresses next year.
Doctors’ leaders have warned the roll-out of the vaccine will be a logistical challenge, but both Dr Alan Stout from the British Medical Association and Dr Laurence Dorman from the Royal College of GPs have said it can be achieved.
On Saturday the Department of Health confirmed that a further nine people have died after contracting coronavirus in Northern Ireland. The death toll according to the department has now risen to 983 people.
Another 315 people have tested positive for the virus, bringing the total number of infections since the pandemic began to 51,824.
There are 410 Covid-19 patients in hospital in Northern Ireland, with 33 in intensive care. Twenty-nine patients are currently ventilated. Hospital occupancy is 97%.