The first Covid-19 vaccines could be administered in Northern Ireland next week, Stormont’s health minister has said.
Robin Swann said the approval of UK regulators for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine could see the scheduled December 14 roll out date brought forward by a few days.
Mr Swann said the region would receive 25,000 jabs as part of the initial batch arriving in the UK.
Healthcare workers are likely to receive the first jabs in Northern Ireland.
“We would hope to have a supply of vaccine next week, which could actually see that date come forward by a few days,” said Mr Swann.
“We’ll be working through the exact logistics of the dispatch of the vaccine from Belgium across to the UK and how we get that distributed through your system.”
The minister urged caution and stressed that compliance with Covid-19 regulations is still vital.
“It’s the beginning of the end, it’s not the end,” he said.
“It will be weeks and it’ll be well into next year before we’re looking to that larger mass vaccination programme across the population of Northern Ireland.
“So, as I say, this is the beginning of them.
“We’re not there yet.
“So we do ask the people in Northern Ireland to continue to maintain and follow the regulations that are there.”
He added: “This is light at the end of the tunnel but that tunnel to me is still well into next year.”
Addressing safety concerns raised by some members of the public, Mr Swann insisted no corners had been cut by the vaccine regulators.
First Minister Arlene Foster said the vaccine approval was an early “Christmas present”.
“This does give us the road back to normality and I think everybody has been waiting for that,” she said.
“I’m incredibly proud today that the United Kingdom has been able to do this and that we will all benefit from this vaccine coming.”
Mrs Foster said the rollout of the vaccine would be a “huge challenge”.
She said the Stormont Executive also has to plan for economic recovery.
“So we need to find a way out of this that brings recovery back to the United Kingdom and to Northern Ireland, of course, in particular, and that’s what we’ll be working on in the weeks to come as well as working on, of course, all of the logistical challenges on the rollout of the vaccine and mass testing,” she told Radio Ulster.
First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the vaccine approval marked a “turning point”.
“I think this is the news that people have been waiting for now for the best of 10 months when we’ve all been challenged to the limits, so I think this is a very positive story,” she said.
“This is a turning point in our Covid battle, and I think people should feel that, and they’re right to feel it because it has been such a challenging time.”
Ms O’Neill acknowledged that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was the most “problematic” in terms of the logistical challenges over storage and batch sizes.
The Sinn Fein vice president said she would have no issue taking the vaccine herself, but added that it is for medical experts to convince those people who have “natural and understandable” concerns.
Ms O’Neill rejected any suggestion of a mandatory vaccination programme.
“I think it’s about freedom of choice,” she said.
“I think I would be more in the camp of encouraging people to take the vaccine, I think it’s important that people do.
“But I don’t believe that it should be mandatory, I don’t believe that in any sort of scenario.
“I think it’s for us to convince people of the merits and why it’s important, and I think it’s for the medical and scientific evidence to back that all up and then people to make their decisions.”