Ireland will receive a “large volume” of AstraZeneca vaccines in the coming weeks, the pharmaceutical firm’s Irish president has said, after weeks of criticism over the impact of its unreliable deliveries on the State’s vaccination rollout.
In an interview with The Irish Times, Dan Wygal declined to apologise for the massive shortfall in AstraZeneca shipments to Ireland, but said he felt “highly accountable” to do all he could to improve the situation.
Ireland was estimated to receive 827,000 AstraZeneca doses in the first quarter based on advance purchase agreements, but just 228,000 arrived.
Mr Wygal, who took up the job three weeks ago, said “in the coming weeks we’ll have some of the largest shipments yet sent into Ireland” as the company is overcoming some manufacturing problems it has encountered.
A shipment of more than 100,000 doses, the largest so far, is expected to arrive next week, though he declined to quote “absolute numbers” for the weeks ahead.
The vaccination rollout was hit with fresh controversy on Friday when it emerged that teachers from a fee-paying school in Bray and childcare staff got left-over jabs at the private Beacon Hospital in south Dublin ahead of their place on the official schedule.
Beacon chief executive Michael Cullen, whose children attend the school, apologised, and acknowledged that the practice was “not in line” with HSE sequencing guidelines.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said there was “absolutely no defence” for what had happened.
A HSE official is to be tasked with ensuring the hospital’s programme adheres to prioritisation rules in future.
Meanwhile, Tuesday’s key Cabinet decisions on the easing of restrictions from April 5th are expected to come down to the wire amid fears that the B117 variant could trigger a fourth wave. Case numbers remain relatively steady, with the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) on Friday reporting 20 deaths and 584 new Covid-19 cases.
Ahead of the Cabinet meeting there is widespread agreement among Ministers that the 5km travel restriction will be relaxed, and that non-contact sports training for youths will be permitted.
The Department of Education on Friday said that second-level students would all return to school as planned from April 12th. HSE chief executive Paul Reid said play-dates and house visits were driving increased transmission among children rather than school attendance.
With concerns about a possible increase in the number of cases being reflected by a reproduction rate of between 1 and 1.3 cases per infection, Government sources expressed caution over the relaxing of restrictions.
The reopening of construction looks set to be gradual, with one source saying “there would be huge mobility issues involved if we allowed all 110,000 construction workers to come back together”.
The home-building sector is expected to be prioritised initially.
Ministers cautioned that much of what is announced next week would depend on data over coming days. Some are anticipating higher numbers because of increased testing and increased GP referrals.
Preliminary figures from the first day of Covid-19 testing of symptom-free people at the HSE’s five walk-in centres showed a positivity rate of between 1 per cent and 2 per cent on more than 1,700 swabs taken on Thursday.
The positivity rate was highest, more than 2 per cent, at pop-up centres in Blanchardstown, Dublin, and Tullamore, Co Offaly, two of five infection hotspots targeted by the HSE, which is planning to open walk-in centres in other high-infection areas.
The numbers attending the centres increased by around a quarter on Friday.
“It shows that there are cases there that we might not have otherwise have found,” said Niamh O’Beirne, the HSE’s national testing and tracing lead.
She said the areas “are showing higher positivity rates than in our other serial testing”, a reference to the frequent testing in meat plants, mental health and disability facilities, and nursing homes.
The Government is likely to be warned by Nphet on Monday that the Covid-19 situation remains volatile. Senior public health sources on Friday warned that if the Government “does something in April that triggers a wave, they have a disaster on their hands; if they hold off until May or June it is a completely different risk profile”.
Ministers are expected to push for more clarity on medium-term plans for the easing of restrictions. “You have to give some indication of what’s possible,” one Cabinet source said, “We have to give an indication of a broader reopening towards the end of May.”