Northern Ireland could launch vaccine passport as early as July 5th

New regions added to North’s travel green list; Delta variant leads to enhanced testing

A number of countries and territories, including Malta and the Balearics, are to be added to Northern Ireland’s green list for travel from June 30th.

From 4am on June 30th, Anguila, Antigua and Barbuda, the Balearic Islands, Barbados, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Madeira, Malta, Montserrat, Pitcairn Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands will be on the region’s green list.

The changes were agreed following the latest review on Thursday by the UK’s Joint Biosecurity Centre.

Also on Thursday, Northern Ireland’s Department of Health announced the North’s Covid-19 vaccine “passport” for fully vaccinated individuals undertaking international travel will be operational on or before July 19th.

The scheme could be operational as early as July 5th, depending on progress on cybersecurity checks.

The deadline of July 19th is in order to provide alignment with a similar scheme in the Republic, the department said.

The department’s chief digital information officer Dan West said the aim was “effectively to have a Covid-19 vaccine passport – internationally recognised proof a person has had both vaccine doses.

“This will complement the UK’s existing traffic-light system for international travel, which can include PCR tests and quarantine rules, depending on the travel location.

“While final decisions have still to be taken on how and when these vaccine certificates will be used, they are expected to make foreign travel easier for people who have had both doses.”

Northern Ireland’s vaccine certificates will initially be provided in hard-copy format, which will include security and counterfeit protection features and involve a specialised printing process.

A digital version is expected to be available by mid-August, and will also allow the recording of negative PCR Covid-19 test results as an alternative to proof of vaccination to enable travel.

The process of applying for and receiving hard-copy certification is expected to take 10 days.

Enhanced testing

Meanwhile, enhanced Covid-19 testing is to be carried out in Derry and Castlewellan, Co Down, after a number of probable cases of the Delta variant were identified in both locations.

The North's Public Health Agency (PHA) said on Thursday that early results were suggestive of the variant being involved in the cases, but this has not been confirmed.

Asymptomatic people aged 18-40 from what the PHA said are “selected, targeted neighbourhoods” in both areas will be asked to come forward for testing as a precautionary measure.

“This is so we can identify asymptomatic Covid-19 cases early and reduce the risk of spread in the community,” the health body said.

"PCR testing is opening to those in the 18 to 40 age group as we are seeing more cases of the Delta variant in this age group throughout Northern Ireland, " said Dr Bríd Farrell from the PHA.

“We are seeing cases of the Delta variant across all council areas of Northern Ireland and this is a reminder to everyone that we should take steps now to help reduce the spread of the variant, and avoid becoming complacent,” she said.

Those who are being asked to come forward for testing will be contacted by post from Friday.

Approximately half of all new confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland are now of the Delta variant.

According to the most recent figures, which were released by the PHA on Wednesday, 612 confirmed or probable cases of the Delta variant have now been reported in the North, more than twice the total of the previous week.

Cases of the variant have been detected in all 11 council areas in Northern Ireland.

Rising cases

The number of new Covid-19 cases in the North has been rising in recent weeks. An additional 198 cases were confirmed in the 24 hours to Thursday, according to figures from the North’s Department of Health. There were no further deaths from the disease reported on Thursday.

Northern Ireland’s hospitals were treating 18 people with Covid-19 as of Thursday. None were in intensive care.

A total of 1,178 Covid-19 cases have been identified in Northern Ireland in the last seven days, compared with 853 the week before.

Across Northern Ireland there was an average of 62 cases per 100,000 people over the last seven days. However, in Derry and Strabane the figure is 180 per 100,000.

Dr Farrell urged everyone over 18 who has not yet booked their vaccination appointment to do so, and said those who have already received their first dose should make sure they attend for their second.

“By slowing the spread of the virus, this allows us to get more people in the community vaccinated and get protected against Covid-19,” she said.

“Two doses of the vaccine appears to have a high degree of effectiveness against the Delta variant, and getting it [the doses] will not only help protect you, but also more vulnerable members of our community.”

Enhanced Covid-19 testing was carried out in Omagh, Co Tyrone, and Ballymoney, Co Antrim, after a number of probable cases of the Delta variant were identified there, with 449 people tested in Omagh and 689 tested in Ballymoney as of Monday.

Early analysis of results showed a total of 31 positive cases of Covid-19 were detected in this effort, the PHA said.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times