Northern Ireland is imposing no sanctions on residents of the Republic who cross the border to get the coronavirus vaccine, as doctors push for an "all island" approach to vaccinations to drive down infection rates.
The North’s vaccine programme has become increasingly attractive to people living in the Republic after it opened appointments to all over-50s.
The Republic is still inoculating the over-70s and postponed 30,000 appointments this week after suspending use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine on safety grounds.
Northern Ireland's department of health said anyone who was vaccinated "must be entitled to receive healthcare in Northern Ireland and be registered with a GP in Northern Ireland . . . or be employed as a healthcare worker in Northern Ireland".
Asked about penalties for those able to book without meeting the eligibility criteria, based on having an old healthcare number from previous residency in the UK, the department said there were “none”.
The North had delivered first shots to almost 34 per cent of its population by March 16th. The Republic had vaccinated 9.4 per cent of its population by the same date after its rollout was beset by delays to supplies.
Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland's first minister, has warned that the pace of vaccination in the Republic was a "concern" and argued for the UK to offer surplus doses to the Republic to prevent unvaccinated people from coming up to the North since "they can carry Covid with them".
One man living in Donegal described how he was able to use an NHS number from when he worked in England to secure an appointment at a central vaccination site in Belfast earlier this week. The man's wife was able to do the same.
“We’re still not absolutely sure what we’re doing is right and we haven’t told people,” added the man, who is in his early 50s. His wife is medically vulnerable, so is theoretically in the next group to be vaccinated in the Republic, but “God knows when they’ll get that done”.
“I can understand why people are doing it,” said Donegal general practitioner Denis McCauley, who heads the Irish Medical Organisation’s GP committee, and said people had told him they had received the vaccine in the North.
“If you ask me what’s the best vaccine, it’s the first one that you can get. I’m not going to judge anybody who has the ability to get a vaccine.”
Official figures showed there were more than 2 million patients in Northern Ireland in 2020 and fewer than 1.9 million residents.
Much of the difference is believed to be people living in the Republic attracted to the North’s free GP visits and other benefits of NHS care.
"It's such a big project, it's never going to be completely watertight," said Dr Alan Stout, chair of the British Medical Association GPs' committee, referring to people's ability to find loopholes in Northern Ireland's vaccination eligibility rules. "I would imagine people can get around them if they're determined to."
Dr McCauley, who like Dr Stout favours an all-island approach to vaccination, pointed out that infection rates in Donegal, for example, tracked Northern Ireland’s national trends more closely than those in the Republic.
"The thing you have to realise is that we're part of Ulster, part of the Republic of Ireland, but from a pandemic point of view, we're probably more associated with Northern Ireland. That's the starting point."
Colm Gildernew, chair of the Northern Ireland assembly's health committee and Sinn Féin health spokesman, said he was "acutely aware" of the need for an all-island approach to vaccination since "the virus does not recognise borders".
“Vaccinating those who hold NHS and national insurance numbers should be automatic but the effort should not be limited to them,” he said, arguing the case for Northern Irish vaccinations for “those who work in all settings [in the North]; carers, nurses, teachers and others who work in close contact situations” even if they live in the Republic.
“[That] would be a sensible approach if we are serious about combating this virus and having our communities emerge to return to normal,” he said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021