“Teething problems” with the booster rollout will be fixed, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said, as he defended Micheál Martin from suggestions that the Taoiseach was unfairly blaming the public for no-shows.
Mr Varadkar said Mr Martin “is always very fair. He is one of the fairest people that I have ever worked with”.
Speaking in the Dáil on Wednesday, Mr Martin said he was not casting blame on people who had not shown up for their Covid-19 booster shot when he addressed the chamber the previous day but instead highlighting the importance of the third dose.
Mr Martin said on Tuesday that last week 180,000 appointments for boosters were issued but only 93,000 turned up and that there does not seem to be the “same urgency” in people availing of booster shots as there was for the first and second doses of the vaccine.
The HSE has said people may get booster vaccine appointments from multiple sources due to the availability of the third jab from different channels - pharmacies, GPs and vaccination centres. However it said it was working to amend the vaccine system to deal with this.
Speaking during Leaders’ Questions on Wednesday, Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy said “instead of blaming people for not turning up to their appointments, can you tell us what’s been done to resolve the problems of the booking system?”
The Kildare North TD said in the same week it was announced that walk-in booster shots would be accommodated, there were people queuing at the Citywest vaccination centre who were told “only people with appointments would receive a booster” having waited for hours.
“What you failed to mention yesterday is the ongoing problems with the booking system. Eligible people can now get boosters from the GPs, pharmacies or indeed vaccination centres,” she said.
Mr Martin said he was not “blaming people” but underlining the importance of the booster shot, in particular with the emergence of the Omicron variant.
“First of all the HSE have acknowledged they do have to improve systems, but it’s more than that. In my conversation with all the principals yesterday, there was a sense, to be frank about it, that the same urgency that applied to getting your first and second dose wasn’t there in terms of the third dose,” he said.
He said he did not believe in a “mandatory approach” to vaccinations and through the voluntary system in Ireland very high levels had been achieved.
The political exchanges came as the Department of Health reported a further 4,152 confirmed cases of Covid-19. As of 8am on Wednesday, 543 Covid-19 patients are hospitalised, of which 118 are in ICU.
A further 81 deaths related to Covid-19 have been notified since last week, bringing the total in the State to 5,788.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said Wednesday’s announcement that a Covid-19 vaccine would soon be available to children aged 5-12 was welcome news.
For adults, he said, “please prioritise your booster vaccine appointment as soon as you are called for it. Do not wait until after Christmas to receive your booster vaccine. The benefits of receiving your booster dose far outweigh any potential risks that may arise in the meantime.
“You will begin to receive the benefit of your booster protection within seven days of receiving your third dose. This means that anybody who received their vaccine this week can be confident in the protection the booster will offer them as we move closer to the Christmas period.”
On the risk posed by the Omicron variant, Dr Holohan said scientists needed time to complete studies and interpret test results, adding :“We must be careful about drawing firm conclusions until we have a more complete picture.”
The HSE said the availability of boosters from multiple locations meant “people will occasionally get appointments from multiple sources, or indeed after already been vaccinated”.
“While steps have been taken to minimise this, it is inevitable this will occur but our priority is to ensure we give people maximum choices to get vaccinated,” said a HSE spokeswoman.
A HSE spokeswoman said that it was taking longer to vaccine people with booster doses in some age cohorts and this could be seen in the lower attendance at both appointments and walk-in clinics.
“Even allowing for acknowledged issue with notification across the different vaccination systems, it is evident that it is taking longer for people to attend for the booster vaccination,” she said.
She said that the HSE was encouraging people to take up their appointment when offered and, if not, to let the HSE know if they do not wish to attend and if they instead plan to attend a walk-in service at a vaccination centre or pharmacy.
Mr Varadkar said there was a higher “do not attend” rate at the vaccination centres of as much as 50 per cent compared to 15 per cent or 20 per cent elsewhere in the health service. He said there may be issues in the booking system that need to be “ironed out” and added: “I’ve heard anecdotally of people getting appointments when they’ve already had their third dose or people getting two appointments or not being able to cancel them.”
Speaking in Drogheda, Mr Varadkar said “these are teething problems. We actually had this similar problem in the first phase of the vaccine program, and it will be sorted out.”
On Omicron Mr Varadkar said: “There isn’t an awful lot that we know about at this stage. “There’s some suggestions that it is more transmissible than delta, but also less severe, and that there is vaccine escape.”
Mr Varadkar said a fourth vaccine dose may well be needed “because the evidence from Israel is that unfortunately, immunity wanes from third dose as well. So it may well be the case that this is a vaccine that particularly people with medical conditions might have to have on an annual basis like we do with the flu.”
Speaking on Wednesday morning, HSE chief operations officer Anne O’Connor said it was working to amend the vaccine system with multiple channels causing challenges.
Speaking on RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland, Ms O’Connor said some people had gone to their local pharmacy to get their booster vaccine and then had received an appointment at a vaccination centre. She called on people to cancel their vaccination centre appointment if they had received their booster through their GP or pharmacy.
When asked about the lower levels of people in the 60-69 age cohort who have received their booster vaccine, Ms O’Connor said that not everyone in that age group would have had their second vaccine more than five months ago. That was “a natural limiter”.
Ms O’Connor said people possibly were apprehensive or busier, now that many were back at work or were preparing for Christmas, but the vaccine was important as was the booster.
The chairman of the Irish Medical Organisation’s GP committee, Dr Denis McCauley, told Newstalk Breakfast that there were very few no-shows to booster appointments at GP surgeries because people know their GP personally.
Now was not the time for “messing”, he said, in relation to people failing to attend their appointments at vaccine centres.
“If you get a vaccine appointment, make sure that you go there rather than getting your hair done or going shopping – or if it is a work thing, stay on the helpline to get a new appointment.”
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s leaders have indicated they do not expect further Covid-19 restrictions to be introduced before Christmas.
First Minister Paul Givan and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill were speaking separately on Wednesday following the first confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the region.
Two of the confirmed cases of Omicron have been described as within the same household in the greater Belfast area while the third unconnected case was discovered in the South Eastern Trust area. All the cases are linked with travel from Britain.
A further five patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 have died in Northern Ireland, latest figures show. Another 1,933 positive cases of the virus have also been notified by the North’s department of health.