Government to consider extending interval between Covid vaccine doses

Donnelly awaiting recommendation from deputy chief medical officer and vaccination taskforce

The taskforce is to examine what the impact of potentially increasing the weeks between vaccine doses would have on the rollout. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The taskforce is to examine what the impact of potentially increasing the weeks between vaccine doses would have on the rollout. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

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Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said he expects a recommendation “in the coming days” on whether to extend the interval between the first and second dose of Covid-19 vaccines from four weeks to a longer period of up to 12 weeks.

Mr Donnelly said on Sunday he was waiting on a recommendation from the State’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn and the vaccination taskforce on the matter.

“If we have a recommendation in place tomorrow that is something that we can bring to Government [this week],” he said.

“The data we are getting back from the vaccination programme in Ireland and from around the world is that even the first dose of the two-dose vaccine is showing absolutely incredible positive success in terms of reduction of cases and hospitalisations.”

Mr Donnelly said the issue being examined was what impact would result from increasing the interval from four weeks to eight or 12 weeks.

However, he confirmed the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) had not been asked about the matter and there was no memo being written on it “at the moment”.

Mr Donnelly was speaking on Sunday after dropping plans to explore the merits of under-30s being vaccinated ahead of older age groups – a proposal that provoked a furious response from Cabinet colleagues.

After what he described as a “rocky week” for the vaccination programme, Mr Donnelly on Sunday said Dr Glynn had informed him there was no evidence to support such a change. Dr Glynn sent his written response on Friday night.

“There is no plan to do this and there is no proposal to do this,” Mr Donnelly told Newstalk.

“All I was doing was checking in with the deputy CMO to say where are we at on the transmission data. He said it isn’t there and that’s it.”

Flak

The confirmation by Mr Donnelly brought to an end over 24 hours of confusion and consternation over comments he made to The Irish Times that he had asked the Department to assess prioritising under-30s.

The Minister defended his decision to explore the issue. He said the issue was raised by Niac in December and it was his duty as Minister to continue to probe the data.

His comments took colleagues by surprise and prompted angry responses within Cabinet. Taoiseach Micheál Martin spoke to Mr Donnelly about the matter on Saturday and his spokesman said that night the policy remained “unchanged”.

Several Ministers said privately that the Government had taken a lot of flak from gardaí and teachers after changing the priority to one based on older age groups getting priority.

“There was a sense that things had begun to settle especially with good news on the vaccines last week. It is hard to understand how and why he would publicly put out there such a radical move was being considered - to move away from a plan that had been agreed by Cabinet,” said one Minister

A second Minister said that people were “furious” about the comments. “Constituents were melting the phones of TD and Senators [on Saturday].”

A new oversight group has been formed by the Taoiseach in an effort to avoid some of the serious political and logistical differences that have arose in rolling out the programme.

The Vaccine Rollout Group, chaired by the State’s top civil servant Martin Fraser, is being put in place to ensure that all conceivable implications of any change in the vaccination programme are fully considered.

It met last week and is due to meet again on Wednesday. The group comprises Mr Fraser; the new secretary general of the Department of Health, Robert Watt; Niac; Dr Glynn; Paul Reid of the HSE; Briain Mac Craith of the Vaccine taskforce, and Liz Canavan of the Department of An Taoiseach.

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