Plans to accelerate the provision of Covid-19 vaccines to the under-50s are to be discussed by Ministers this week as health officials wrestle with the latest revisions to the State’s inoculation programme.
This is expected to be the busiest week yet for the programme, with 220,000- 240,000 vaccinations scheduled.
However, changes to the restrictions on the use of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, allied to fluctuating delivery schedules, have presented Ministers with a choice of accelerating the programme for under-50s or potentially having hundreds of thousands of unused doses by mid-summer.
HSE chief executive Paul Reid said on Sunday that while the idea of providing vaccines in parallel to different age groups may seem fine to some, it could create issues.
He warned that if people in their 50s were still waiting for vaccines while those in their 30s were receiving them, it would not be good from a public health perspective given the older cohort is deemed to be at greater risk from Covid-19.
HSE officials have been working on a revised vaccination schedule and a memo on the programme is expected to be discussed at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting. The key issue will be figuring how to build momentum in the programme and reach the target of more than four in five adults receiving or being offered a first dose by the end of next month.
The National Immunisation Advisory Council (Niac) has essentially advised that the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines be used for people over 50.
One question for Ministers is whether to use stocks of both Pfizer and AstraZeneca to vaccinate over-50s now. Such an approach could leave the HSE with hundreds of thousands of doses of unused AstraZeneca vaccines later in the summer, when large shipments are due, because of the age restriction.
Senior sources say one option being discussed is breaking the existing age sequencing arrangement and running parallel programmes with over-40s receiving the Pfizer vaccines while waiting for larger supplies of AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson later in the summer to complete the older age groups.
However, some officials are understood to be concerned that this approach could be problematic should promised supplies of AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson not arrive on time.
Applications for vaccination will be accepted from people in their 50s for the first time on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan has urged people who have received the vaccine, particularly those who have been cocooning, to have confidence to start resuming normal life once restrictions ease from next Monday.
In an open letter he said now was a time to “move forward, to go outdoors and to see one another again” but that it was not a signal that the pandemic was over.
“We have all come a long way and things will improve further but there remains a risk that too much social mixing especially indoors, in houses and other settings will lead to a further surge of this disease.”
One death with Covid-19 and a further 402 cases of the disease were reported on Sunday. The State is likely to pass the mark of 250,000 confirmed cases on Monday, 14 months into the pandemic.