For the second day in succession Northern Ireland reported a record number of confirmed coronavirus cases on Wednesday.
On a day when a new Covid-19 vaccine received approval the department reported 2,143 Covid-19 cases, following on the record 1,566 positive cases it reported on Tuesday.
This brought the total number of cases there since the outbreak of the pandemic to 70,905.
Over the past seven days of the Christmas holiday 7,100 positive cases were reported in Northern Ireland – more than 1,000 each day.
The department in its daily bulletin on Wednesday afternoon also recorded six more coronavirus deaths taking the death toll to 1,311.
Hospital bed occupancy in the North stands at 96 per cent. There are 492 patients receiving Covid treatment with 35 in intensive care and 24 of them on ventilators.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has been recalled to discuss next week’s planned reopening of schools amid strict lockdown measures.
SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan welcomed support for his party’s Assembly recall petition, saying pupils, parents and teachers “need answers”.
Mr McCrossan said: “With a huge rise in Covid-19 levels across our community, the fact that schools across the North are due to return in just days is deeply concerning.
“Pupils, parents and teachers are extremely anxious and there has been a lack of clarity and support to reassure them and assist.
“It is now essential that the Minister for Education outlines the medical and scientific evidence he has used to dogmatically rule out an extended school holiday.”
The NASUWT teaching union has welcomed the recall. Justin McCamphill said: “There are no excuses for not now taking every step necessary to protect the wider community, school staff and young people and their families.”
Gerry Murphy of the teachers’ trade union INTO wrote to First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill calling for online learning to be introduced.
Mr Murphy said the Minister must act to protect pupils and teaching and non-teaching staff.
“INTO is now demanding that online learning be introduced from day one of the second term in the interests of school communities and society generally. We urge him to act while time remains.”
Meanwhile, the North's health Minister Robin Swann said on Wednesday that approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in the UK paved the way for a "significant acceleration" of Northern Ireland's vaccination programme.
Mr Swann said that 50,000 Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines are currently available to Northern Ireland, with delivery arranged in advance of Wednesday’s announcement about its approval. Further supplies are expected early in the new year.
Already in Northern Ireland more than 33,000 people have been vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine which was approved in the UK on December 8th.
“Today’s announcement is extremely welcome news and helps us look forward to the new year with optimism and hope,” said Mr Swann.
But the Minister also warned that the coming weeks will be among the “most challenging yet” in the pandemic, with the North’s health service under immense pressure.
“The vaccine programme will transform the situation but that will take time,” he said.
Urging people to abide by the current six-week lockdown he added, “Between now and then, we need another big push to get through these next few months. We can all play our part in supporting the health service and in protecting each other from Covid-19. Please follow the public health advice to stop it spreading.”
The approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine means Northern Ireland GPs can begin the first phase of population vaccination from January 4th, starting with those aged 80 years and over.
The programme will then be rolled out based on age and other clinical vulnerability factors. Prioritisation will be guided by the British Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). The rate of progress will depend on the availability of the vaccine, in terms of both manufacture and supply.
The initial phase of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccination programme was focused on care home residents and staff, which were the number one priority as recommended by JCVI. Health and social care staff in direct contact with vulnerable patients also were offered vaccination.
The health department said that 80 per cent of care homes have been visited. So far 8,940 care home residents, 10,484 care home staff and 14,259 health and social care staff have been vaccinated.
The North’s chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine could be “more readily” taken to people. “It will make the task of vaccinating those most at risk and then the entire population over 50 years much more achievable,” he said.
Patricia Donnelly, head of the North's Covid-19 vaccination programme, said the "characteristics" of the Oxford/AstraZeneca meant the department could "more rapidly scale up the vaccination programme roll-out, staying in line with the JCVI priority recommendations".
While the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine must be stored and transported at -70 degrees and can only be stored in regular medical refrigerators at 2 degrees to 8 degrees for up to five days, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine can be transported and stored at 2 degrees to 8 degrees for up to six months, making it much easier to move around. – Additional reporting by PA