There was initially no GP representative on a new body tasked with planning for widespread coronavirus vaccination, even though they are likely to play a major role in its distribution.
It is understood the matter was remedied after being raised with Department of Health officials at a recent liaison meeting between it, the HSE, the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) and the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP).
The recently formed Immunisation Strategy Group is currently working on a Covid-19 vaccination programme which the HSE said it will implement "in due course".
Dr Denis McCauley, chair of the IMO’s GP Committee, said they had been left “somewhat surprised that the early group doesn’t have [a GP] and we would expect one”.
As he explained, Ireland’s network of community doctors could play a key role in vaccination – not only through the possible use of surgeries to administer vaccines, but because the GP database is almost certain to be used in identifying those patients most in need of first round or early vaccinations.
The ICGP said it received confirmation that a GP representative would be added to the group. The Department of Health did not respond to request for comment.
Although a strategy has yet to be confirmed, the medical community appears to be unanimous on which sections of society would be targeted first – health care workers and carers, as well as those in a specific “vulnerable” category.
Dr McCauley said after healthcare workers, it is likely that those in nursing homes and care settings would receive the vaccines as priority, and could potentially be divided by age category, beginning for instance with those aged over 85.
Then others in the community would follow, specifically those with chronic health conditions who could be identified through the GP database. He also said the demand/supply ratio would be such that delivery would be very tightly controlled.
Professor Mary Horgan, an expert in infectious disease and president of the Royal College of Physicians said a 70 per cent vaccination rate would be required in the population to achieve results, although how long that will take remains impossible to tell.
“What’s important now is to look at who is most likely to get Covid and end up in hospital, or indeed dying. We all have that knowledge now,” she said of the process in identifying priority recipients.
“You want getting a vaccination to do two things, it might achieve both: one [reducing] the severity of the disease so that people don’t end up in hospital and two, to reduce transmissibility.”
She said achieving the first of these goals would help protect hospital services , but the vaccine should only be taken in tandem with other ongoing measures such as personal behaviour, test and tracing and treatment.
Dr Gerald Barry, a virologist at University College Dublin (UCD), said the successful vaccination of older and vulnerable cohorts of society would have major impact, including a possible end to the fixation on daily case rates, a defining aspect of the pandemic experience.
“If you take away the problem of those above 65/70 years olds getting [infected], that’s the vast majority of severe cases. So even if the younger population aren’t vaccinated [immediately] the risk is massively reduced,” he said.
“If you can protect the vulnerable groups then you don’t necessarily have to worry as much about cases numbers going crazy.
“You would be in a situation where we could start to open up society to an extent while maintaining caution.”