State wary of potential for litigation with Covid jab as vaccinations begin on Tuesday

Up to 20,000 a week to be vaccinated from early January, says Minister for Health

The State will vaccinate up to 20,000 people a week from early January, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said, arguing that Ireland will not be "left behind" amid criticism of the speed of the roll-out of the Covid-19 immunisation programme.

After several EU countries began the roll-out of their programmes over the weekend, Róisín Shortall, co-leader of the Social Democrats, said it seemed “there were logistical issues with registration and consent, both of which should have been sorted out by now”.

It is understood a particular focus is coming to bear on the issue of consent in the design of the programme. The State is wary over the potential for litigation arising from the vaccination programme, after it faced legal cases which touched on the issue of informed consent over Pandemrix, the swine-flu vaccine.

Senior medics, including Dr Tony Holohan, were in the spotlight arising from recent actions over pandemrix, a source involved in the rollout said, arguing that Ireland had a litigious culture.

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Consent is also a key focus among nursing-home residents, some of whom may have impaired cognitive function or communication difficulties.

Taking longer

Sinn Féin's health spokesman David Cullinane said it was important for the HSE to "set out the reasoning why it seems to be taking a bit longer than other countries".

Mr Donnelly said the HSE would next week begin vaccinating in healthcare settings before moving directly into nursing homes, and "in parallel" immunising front line healthcare workers.

“There’s a lot of work going on to make sure that the informed consent materials and procedures are correct, are legally robust, and to make sure the training materials are appropriate,” he said on Sunday.

The State had the infrastructure in place to roll-out tens of thousands of vaccines per week in January, he added.

“From the first week in January we will be receiving 40,000 doses per week. That means we can vaccinate up to 20,000 people a week from early January.”

A HSE source said that between 2,000 and 4,000 people are likely to be vaccinated this week, rising to 20,000 a week from January 4th, and between 30,000 and 40,000 people per week from January 11th, if supplies are delivered into the country.

Earlier than planned

The vaccine roll-out programme will begin on Tuesday, one day earlier than planned, in one of four hospitals designated as initial sites for the administration. Initially, the plan had been to go directly to nursing homes, but the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) said it would prefer the first tranche be given in healthcare settings after some reports of anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction, in the UK and the United States.

Prof Karina Butler, chair of the committee, told The Irish Times that due to this, the NIAC had requested that vaccines initially be given "in facilities where there was medical-support available, and in the intervening time vaccinators would gain confidence and experience handling it if there were reactions".

Training of vaccinators in the specific requirements for the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine will be ramped up this week, with some 200 vaccinators who normally work on school immunisation programmes, alongside 1,500 other healthcare professionals, likely to be involved.

Top priority

Asked why Ireland was not rolling out the programme straight away, HSE chief executive Paul Reid said the top priority was to begin vaccinating people in a safe and effective way. "We want to build confidence very early and immediately with our own vaccine roll-out process," he said.

The HSE said it plans to complete all nursing-home vaccinations by February 28th, covering 70,000 staff and residents. A draft vaccination schedule shows that the nursing-home programme will begin in earnest in the week beginning January 11th, with the vaccination schedule set to be finalised this Thursday following further consultation with nursing-home operators.

The HSE said several steps to produce training materials and other information on the vaccine could only be completed after approval for the Pfizer vaccine was given on December 21st.

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a political reporter with The Irish Times