Robin Swann: NI faces ‘long and difficult’ path to Covid recovery

Northern Ireland faces a “long and difficult” path until enough people have been vaccinated for Covid-19, the Health Minister warned.

The first jabs are expected to take place next week but 70% of the population will need to be immune before life returns fully to normal, Robin Swann said.

Healthcare workers, care home residents and those aged 80 or above are in the first priority groups at the start of a massive logistical exercise.

Around 25,000 doses of the newly approved Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are expected to arrive next week.

Mr Swann said vaccines were the most effective way to prevent infectious diseases.

He said: “They save millions of lives worldwide every day.

“So today is a good day, make no mistake about it, but remember we have many more steps along this long and difficult path to go.”

Mr Swann also said the Pfizer vaccine may not be suitable for use in care homes, given the challenges associated with its transportation.

It has to remain frozen to minus 80C and comes in very large batches.

Stormont ministers hope for speedy approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca candidate, which has more normal logistical challenges and is more suited to distribution at care homes.

First Minister Arlene Foster said she was keen that there be no significant time lag in vaccines being made available in care homes.

The Ulster Hospital near Belfast has been designated as one of seven early vaccination points and will give healthcare workers the jab.

It is planning to administer doses to 1,300 frontline workers a day.

It will run seven days a week and 12 hours a day until at least early February.

Mrs Foster said Wednesday’s regulatory approval marked a major step forward.

She said: “It is the breakthrough that we have all been hoping for and praying for, this is our pathway back to normality.

“Back to a world where we can hug our wider family and friends, able to mark major life events together, both happy and sad, and where we can freely enjoy travel and leisure activities and work and socialise with colleagues.”

Mrs Foster said among the first to receive doses would be 16,000 care home residents and 32,000 staff, plus 71,000 health and care staff and just over 80,000 people aged 80 or over.

Stormont Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said: “A vaccination to protect you and your family from Covid-19 will be available.

“We should all take some comfort from that.

“It will take some months to roll out the vaccine to everyone and I want to assure you that we will be doing all that we can to make sure that that happens as quickly and as smoothly as possible.”

Four more people have died with Covid-19 in Northern Ireland.

Another 416 people have tested positive, the Department of Health said.

Some 2,601 have received an affirmative result over the last seven days.

Ms O’Neill said it had been a long battle against the virus and Wednesday would be one of mixed emotions for relatives of more than 1,000 loved ones who have died with the virus.