Delays in sourcing AstraZeneca jabs in the UK will not have a significant impact on the vaccination rollout schedule in Northern Ireland, MLAs have been told.
Patricia Donnelly, the head of the vaccine programme in Northern Ireland, told the Assembly’s Health committee that plans had been flexed to make more use of Pfizer jabs pending the arrival of further AstraZeneca stock.
Ms Donnelly said all first Covid-19 jab appointments already booked will be honoured and those expecting a second jab will also receive it.
She said more people would continue to get first jabs in April but at a slightly reduced rate.
The senior official said the delivery issues could knock back the rollout plan by four weeks in a “worst case scenario” but said the delay was more likely to be around two weeks.
“I think, worst case scenario, it probably puts us back by four weeks,” she told the committee.
“The mitigation measures that we put in place we hope will only delay us by two weeks, so it won’t have a huge impact.”
A mass vaccination centre at Belfast’s SSE Arena is due to open on March 29.
Ms Donnelly said the initial hope was that by the time the centre began operating the vaccine would be on offer to the over-40 age cohort.
She said the over-40s were now likely to have to wait for a further fortnight.
Ms Donnelly said at the latest the over 40s would be delayed until the end of April.
“We have scaled down slightly the opening weeks in the SSE Arena,” she said.
“It has the capacity for 40,000 (a week) but in the first weeks we’re looking at 11,000, building up to 20,000 and then up to 30,000 in subsequent weeks.”
Ms Donnelly added: “We had hoped by the time we would launch the SSE Arena that we would be opening to the over-40s.
“I think that will be maybe delayed by two weeks but we’ll keep that under review and it will very much depend on the remaining deliveries that we get from AstraZeneca.”
Ms Donnelly continued: “We have tried to find some mitigation through further use of the Pfizer vaccine.
“So, it will slightly delay it, but it won’t, I think, reduce our plans overall.”
She said the supply of Pfizer jabs had remained steady throughout and she expected that to continue going forward.
Explaining the adjusted rollout plan, Ms Donnelly said three of Northern Ireland’s five health trusts would now rely mainly on Pfizer in the coming weeks pending the arrival of more AstraZeneca jabs.
A delay in the delivery of five million doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine from India is partly to blame for a forthcoming reduction in the UK’s supply.
Ms Donnelly characterised that vaccine delivery as a bonus that the authorities in Northern Ireland had not initially been expecting.
“This vaccine that is delayed was a bumper delivery schedule that we hadn’t expected,” she said.
“This came very late, this announcement that we would be getting this.
“So, in some ways, we hadn’t counted on it.
“We very much welcomed it.
“So while it’s disappointing, our plans are not offset too badly by it.
“We have got increased amounts of Pfizer and I think that’s been always very steady for us.
“So that’s enabled us to have offset it in some way.
“So we’re in constant communication around that and hopefully our steady supply that we’ve had up to date will continue through the month of March, we’ve no reason to believe it won’t.”
One further death of a patient who previously tested positive for Covid-19 was reported in Northern Ireland on Thursday, along with another 169 confirmed cases of the virus.
On the same day, there were 167 Covid positive confirmed inpatients in hospital, of whom 16 were in ICU.