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The COVID-19 vaccination programme will officially begin in Northern Ireland today when those who will be carrying out the vaccinations will be invited to receive the vaccine at a regional vaccination clinic at the Royal Victoria Hospital site. 

The news was announced in a joint letter sent to healthcare professionals throughout Northern Ireland by the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Dr Michael McBride, and the Chief Nursing Officer (CNO), Professor Charlotte McArdle, who also said that it ‘may be several weeks or months’ before ‘substantial quantities of vaccine are widely available. 

In their letter, the CMO and CNO said that they would have to ‘target the vaccine in order to protect those at greatest risk’.  

‘In the initial phase of the vaccination programme,’ Dr McBride and Prof McArdle said in their letter, ‘given the constraints of the deployability of the Pfizer-BioNTech product, the vaccine will be administered mainly through vaccination centres operating under the direction and governance of Health and Social Care Trusts.  

‘Each of the Trusts have identified suitable premises where vaccinators will be able to administer the vaccine in a safe, controlled and socially distanced environment with the appropriate measures in place. This phase of the programme will begin week commencing 14 December. 

‘In advance of the Primary Care led element of the programme, we are currently considering how these arrangements might be extended to include the over 80s in the community.’ 

‘From early January 2021,’ they continued, ‘it is intended to roll out the programme through primary care led vaccination clinics, which will be responsible for the vaccination of the vast majority of eligible individuals.’ 

Until the vaccine is widely available, the CMO and CNO said that advice provided by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) would be adhered to. 

‘The JCVI,’ they said, ‘specifically advises that ‘the first priorities for any COVID-19 vaccination programme should be the prevention of COVID-19 mortality and the protection of health and social care staff and systems. Secondary priorities could include vaccination of those at increased risk of hospitalisation and at increased risk of exposure, and to maintain resilience in essential public services. 

‘JCVI acknowledges that the single greatest risk of mortality from COVID-19 is increasing age and that the risk increases exponentially with age. There is clear evidence that those living in care homes for older adults have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 as they have had a high risk of exposure to infection and are at higher clinical risk of severe disease and mortality. Given the increased risk of outbreaks, morbidity and mortality in these enclosed settings, these adults are considered to be at very high risk as are care home workers who are therefore considered a very high priority for vaccination. 

‘Frontline health and social care workers are at increased personal risk of exposure to infection with COVID-19 and of transmitting that infection to susceptible and vulnerable patients in health and social care settings.  

‘All health and social care staff in Northern Ireland will be offered the COVID-19 vaccine as an early priority. In light of the planned delivery schedules of the vaccine in December and January this will be phased. Ultimately all health and social care workers will have the opportunity to be vaccinated to protect themselves, their families, and patients as soon as sufficient quantities of a vaccine become available, which is expected to be within the first quarter of 2021.’  

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