COVID-19 Vaccine: Preparations

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 1st December 2020.

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Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP 4:00 pm, 1st December 2020

I beg to move

That this Assembly welcomes the recent breakthrough in efforts to establish a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine; highlights the importance of Northern Ireland retaining full access to the UK Government's supply network, including national distribution plans; stresses that this approach provides the best means of protecting the wider public as soon as possible; believes a professional expert should be appointed to lead on the vaccination programme in order to ensure it is available to front-line staff and those most vulnerable in Northern Ireland at the same time as the rest of the UK; and calls on the Minister of Health to outline a clear action plan for the roll-out, starting before the end of December 2020, of a COVID-19 vaccine in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes. Please open the debate on the motion.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I very much welcome the opportunity to propose the motion on behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party, because, today, we have light at the end of the tunnel. I am sure that all our hearts have been lifted in recent weeks with the announcements heralding the groundbreaking development of vaccines to combat the horrendous virus that has lived amongst us for the last 10 months. It is a remarkable feat of science and an answer to the prayers of millions across the world that we now stand but weeks away from administering a vaccine to those on the front line and the most vulnerable.

Sadly, for many families, the vaccine has come too late. We now know that, according to the NI dashboard, over 1,000 lives have been lost to COVID-19. Many homes across Northern Ireland struggle to bear the pain of loss to that awful disease. We know of others for whom the mental anguish of lockdown, the fear of catching coronavirus or the belief that they have contracted COVID-19 and may pass it on to a more vulnerable loved one has been just too much to bear. The number of such lives lost will likely not be captured under the banner of COVID. As we move ahead with plans for a vaccination programme, we do so with the memory of those whom we have lost at the front and centre of our hearts and minds.

Of course, we are very much taking for granted that the regulator will approve the vaccines in the coming days and weeks. However, that process must be thorough and independent. The vaccines must be safe, and they must — absolutely must — have the confidence of the public. If and when that approval arrives, we must be ready to hit the ground running in Northern Ireland in order to protect our people. That is the purpose of the motion: to focus minds and to collectively identify issues and offer solutions.

It is a matter of concern and regret that we are, to some degree, playing catch-up in planning for the roll-out of a vaccine. When you look at Wales, for example, you see that its Health Department and Chief Medical Officer were, months ago, doing some of the work that we are doing now. We need to act with haste because, ultimately, the speed at which we can deliver a vaccine will be a matter of life or death for some.

I will focus my comments on three key areas: getting a plan; the logistics of delivering the plan; and equality of access in the plan. We come at the issue of planning with the comfort of knowing that the UK has one of the world's largest vaccine order books per head of population. The Government have secured early access to over 355 million vaccine doses through agreements with separate vaccine developers at various stages of trials. The NI share of the BioNtech/Pfizer vaccine will be around 1·14 million doses between December 2020 and September 2021. The NI share of the AstraZeneca vaccine will be around 2·85 million doses. For that, we say thank you to our Government at Westminster.

Given the confidence about what is coming, we could have planned to a greater degree, but we have not done so. Our constituents remain largely in the dark about how the vaccine will be delivered. Whilst I understand the need for the public's help in continuing to adhere to the regulations and guidelines until it is safe to do otherwise, it is also vital that we have hope for the very near future. What would be better this Christmas, during a pandemic, than saying that next Christmas could be truly normal?

What shape must the plan take? First, it is vital that front-line health workers and the most vulnerable across our Province — those living in care settings, those reliant on domiciliary care, those with underlying medical conditions and those most at risk — are able to avail themselves of the vaccine at the same stage as those in the rest of the UK, and that means accelerating this work.

Furthermore, it requires a strong, ambitious action plan for getting ready.

That plan should include detail on appointing external professional logistical expertise and support where needed; meeting workforce requirements by ensuring that staffing levels can be scaled up or down and are mobile where necessary; maximising available premises where the vaccine can be administered; procuring appropriate levels of cold storage and transport; having a strong communications strategy that addresses misinformation about the vaccine; addressing barriers to access or proximity for marginalised groups; and preparing digital systems to capture data on who has received the vaccine and how it has affected different groups. I urge the Minister to address those issues in his response to the debate.

The second area that I will highlight is the logistics of the plan. Put simply, do we have the people to deliver the vaccination programme? We are told that our GPs, many of whom have not conducted face-to-face appointments for many months now, have never been busier. We understand that a knock-on impact on workload has emanated from the worst waiting times that NI has ever seen for elective surgery and from the impact of long COVID.

With GPs under pressure, how can they do more? If they are to, can the Minister tell us how much GPs will be remunerated for administering each vaccination? With GPs under so much pressure, surely we cannot reduce public access to their day-to-day appointments in order to enable them to deliver the COVID vaccine as well. Will others be skilled up to fight the war against coronavirus? If so, will they need to have a background in healthcare?

Let us not forget that many of our front-line healthcare staff, especially our nurses, are simply exhausted, having been at the coalface of the battle for months. At a time when we should be ramping up all aspects of our healthcare system, we cannot draw more people away from that task. The Minister has often said that the health service is short-staffed. The vaccination programme will only exacerbate that.

In that context, I urge the Minister to utilise our nation's military resource to deliver the vaccination programme alongside our medical professionals. With the understanding that the vaccine will require two doses, 28 days apart, it is vital that there are enough hands on deck to deliver and administer it. That is critical to the success of any programme. The deployment of MoD personnel to explore the logistics of rolling out a vaccine in Northern Ireland is therefore a welcome and constructive move.

The third element is equality of access to the vaccine. We have a diverse population: young and old; urban and rural; those who have underlying health conditions and those who do not; and those who work on the front line and those who do not. To meet that reality, the vaccination programme must be dynamic and flexible, owing to the fact that it will be administered in a range of settings to patients whose circumstances will differ. Serious consideration must be given to mitigating any risk, such as that to the 80-year-old with underlying health conditions who is living at home. What about cancer patients? What about the 100,000 people who were named as being clinically vulnerable because of diabetes at the start of the pandemic? Where will they be on that priority list? What about those from an ethnic minority background, who may well be more susceptible to the virus? There are many people who have many questions about how the vaccine will be administered to them, and many will question the safety of it.

We understand that it may not be possible to use certain vaccines in care homes owing to logistical issues. Why is that? Will that lead to a delay in residents being able to avail themselves of the necessary protection that they require? We have also learnt much about the impact of the varying types of underlying health conditions. That begs the question of whether priority for vaccination will be given to those on the at-risk list: those who were previously shielding. I ask the Minister to outline what we have learnt over the past period and whether that learning has impacted on the potential roll-out of the vaccine. Is there a new, nuanced list of at-risk individuals? If so, how will those individuals be made aware? I implore the Minister to communicate and to be as transparent as possible about the roll-out of this life-saving vaccine. We know that some will not take the vaccine. That is their choice, and it should always be their choice. If we want maximum buy-in to the programme, however, communication and openness will be vital.

This is the first day of the last month of 2020. I do not think that any of us has ever looked forward to a new year as much as we are this year. I look forward to Members' contributions and to the Minister's response in due course.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I, too, acknowledge the individual and family tragedy of every one of the 1,011 deaths that we have sadly recorded to date.

After so many difficult months, I very much welcome the opportunity to consider some much yearned-for positive news, albeit that it will undoubtedly bring additional challenges of its own.

The Health Committee has briefly considered legislation and funding associated with the vaccine and will be briefed in further detail at its meeting on Thursday on plans for the roll-out of the programme. In August, the Committee received correspondence advising us of a consultation on proposed amendments to the Human Medicines Regulations 2012 to support the rapid and effective roll-out of a COVID-19 vaccine and an influenza vaccine. We were advised that that was to ensure that an unlicensed vaccine, once it is deemed safe and effective, could be given temporary authorisation pending the licensing process and subject to strengthened controls. It was also designed to allow a wider range of trained personnel to administer the vaccine, allow for promotion of the vaccine and facilitate its transportation.

The Committee sought information on consultation responses and enquired about liability in the case of any adverse impact of a vaccine. In October, while the Committee was assured that all safety checks were proceeding as normal, we were advised that an individual would be able to claim against the vaccine damage payment scheme, should they meet the eligibility criteria. The Committee was updated on the consultation responses and was advised of changes made in response, including commitments to review the relevant regulation within a year; to specify that a person of appropriate expertise will consider any question of loss of immunity for liability where conditions are breached in respect of vaccine authorisation; and to enhance supervision arrangements for the expanded workforce administering the vaccine.

During discussions on the budget last week, the Committee enquired about costings associated with COVID-19 and the vaccine in particular. We were advised that an initial £140 million had been allocated towards the vaccine but that the British Government had since indicated that it would be purchased by them and that the charge would not be passed on to the Executive. While a lesser amount will now be required to fund the administration of the vaccine, officials stressed that a high degree of ongoing uncertainty about COVID-related costs remains more generally. The Committee welcomed those positive developments and will continue to monitor the next steps.

I would now like to make a few comments in my role as Sinn Féin health spokesperson. We all understand the grave nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the devastating effects that the virus has had on the health and well-being of our citizens and economy. We understand that an effective vaccine is the best way to combat the virus at this time and to allow our citizens and our communities to return to more normal activities. Around the world, incalculable numbers of lives have been saved by widespread vaccination. Vaccines have all but wiped out smallpox, rubella, typhoid, measles and polio, which we witnessed in Belfast a number of years ago. Those are illnesses that can cause immense death and suffering.

The science behind any COVID-19 vaccine must be transparent, and there must be no doubt about the safety of the medicine. While the successful development of a vaccine is very welcome, we must ensure that it does not lead to complacency. It cannot be a reason to lose focus on the crucial find, test, trace, isolate, support and communicate strategy that is so badly needed to stop the transmission of COVID-19.

Photo of Órlaithí Flynn Órlaithí Flynn Sinn Féin

Does the Member agree that countries that have put in place a more robust find, test and trace programme have been successful in protecting not only their people but their economy?

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Yes, there is significant emerging evidence that that is the case, and we should look at that. We look forward to welcoming a panel to the Committee on Thursday who might give us more information.

We must also guard against community complacency at this time about the need for basic precautions to be maintained, including washing hands, maintaining social-distancing requirements and reducing our social contacts where we can. That is particularly challenging as we enter the Christmas period, but it remains as vital now as it has since the outset of the emergency. I appeal again for everyone to do all that they can in that regard.

The vaccine must be delivered through the public health system with community support. It must be made available to all equally, regardless of age, location or financial means, free of charge, with priority given to the most vulnerable: the elderly, those with underlying conditions, those in areas of high deprivation and front-line workers. It is important that that work be clinically led to ensure that the vaccine is rolled out in a way that maximises its protection.

This horrendous pandemic has shown that we need to transform our health and care system and that austerity has no role to play. A key part of rebuilding must include preparations for any public health emergency that may occur in the future. We must have the staff, equipment, systems, training and preparedness built into the health and social care system —

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

— and the ability to find, test, trace, isolate and support must be central to that plan.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the opportunity to take part in this important debate. Recent announcements of successes in the development of vaccines to treat COVID-19 have brought the greatest injection of hope that the world has witnessed this year.

I concur with the remarks made earlier about the vaccine probably being too late for many people and families. That will be difficult for them to process, so our thoughts are with those families at this time.

A major impact of COVID-19 has been loneliness — loneliness for those who have been isolating, loneliness for those who live alone and have lost their community support networks and loneliness in the face of winter darkness. The vaccine brings hope that, with the short relaxation of the regulations this Christmastime, it will help us to combat loneliness at a critical time. As we prepare for the celebration of Christmas, knowing that the new year will bring with it hope for the roll-out of a vaccine will bring comfort to many.

Our primary concern, when the vaccine arrives, should be whether we have adequate supplies for those who need it most: our hospital and care home residents and staff; our healthcare staff; and our essential workers. They are the people who need to be protected now, and that is something that we could achieve quite quickly.

We have to remember that a vaccine is not a silver bullet to address all our worries about COVID-19. It will not depoliticise the virus or fix our economy. In the absence of a vaccine, we can follow those crucial steps of hand hygiene, face covering and social distancing to ensure the safety and well-being of the most vulnerable and our key workers. We can keep flattening the curve through our supply of common sense and personal responsibility.

The vaccine will act as another step on the road out of COVID-19. With the delivery of a vaccine will, I hope, come the loosening of the restrictions placed on the public. Important discussions will have to be had for those who want to avail themselves of the vaccine and, just as importantly, for those who do not want to take the vaccine. While it is essential that the North receive the roll-out of the vaccine at the same time as our counterparts in GB, it is also essential that any action plan for the roll-out includes discussion on a cross-border plan. The vaccine does not recognise borders, and it does not generate in predominantly nationalist or unionist areas.

I welcome the fact that discussions with GB are already under way. I also welcome the fact that the Health Minister has conveyed to the UK Government the need for lateral flow device testing kits for the North. Although, regrettably, I have little faith in the Tory Government's willingness to deliver in the interests of the people here, I have faith in our Health Minister. I want to assure him of our support as he continues his work in leading our response to COVID-19, particularly where other Ministers have shirked their responsibility.

The motion suggests that we need an accountable person to lead the roll-out. I appreciate that the newly appointed head of the Civil Service will have a part to play, but I hope that there might be some sort of task force in the Department and a senior named official there to lead the roll-out so that we can interact with that person should we have difficulties in our constituencies.

The best tool that we have to beat COVID-19 is our willingness and ability to come together to form a cohesive approach that all of us can buy into.

We have shown what we are capable of achieving here when we work together with a common purpose against a common foe. Every choice that we make from here on will determine our future, and therefore hope remains. Our hope for a better tomorrow is our single greatest weapon against this foe. It is that hope that will allow us to endure these difficult days, safe in the knowledge that our best days are ahead. We will reach those days, but only when we stick together. I support the motion.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

I place on record my admiration and appreciation for the urgent response of scientists in producing a vaccine that will protect our population from COVID-19. This has been a fantastic United Kingdom achievement. It is reassuring that checks and balances have been, and are being, carried out to ensure that it is a vaccine that is safe to use.

What is our expectation of this vaccine? Is it a magic wand? In the medium to long term, it will give community and individual protection. The more people who decide to be vaccinated — I hope that it will get close to 100% — the quicker the spread of this deadly virus will be slowed down and eventually halted. In the short term, we must not allow its arrival to create any sense of complacency in the community. The virus will not go away just because a vaccination programme has begun. The messaging around washing hands, wearing face coverings, social distancing and following the guidance in regulations will still be a vital weapon in suppressing the virus while we seek to vaccinate everyone, starting with our valued NHS and care staff and then our most vulnerable citizens. That is another reason why it is not a good idea to campaign, contrary to medical and scientific advice, for the opening of certain sectors currently closed by legislation.

The motion calls for the urgent appointment of a professional expert to lead the vaccination programme. That is a sensible suggestion that I think has already been addressed by the Minister of Health. I have to say that I was a little bit disappointed by earlier remarks that implied a degree of criticism of the plan to roll out the vaccine in Northern Ireland before it has even begun. It is reassuring that a panel of vaccinators are being recruited from various parts of our health service and that they are receiving the necessary training for the task.

This programme is an enormous challenge, and certainly unprecedented in living memory. It is an exercise that will require the support of the entire Executive and everyone in the House. Any actions or words that compromise this operation, or, indeed, lead to a loss of public confidence, would be unhelpful in the extreme. We have to recognise that there will be local hiccups and not try to use them for political point-scoring. It is correct that those who will be administering the vaccine initially will be the first to receive the dose. There will be some logistical issues around how some of the vaccines produced have to be stored or transported. This will add to the challenge of the task. There will also be challenges in how the vaccine will be brought to nursing and care homes and taken out to those who are receiving care in their homes. These are all issues that the professional experts who are leading the programme will undoubtedly address.

Over recent months, there have been calls for military intervention. The Minister is on record that he would not hesitate to call in such help if it was required. To date, it has not been necessary. However, that may change in this phase of the fight against the virus. The logistics of this operation will be such that I have no doubt that the army will be able to offer support. I am sure that the Minister will be happy to deploy that help and support if it is needed. As if the roll-out of this vaccine was not a big enough challenge for the NHS, there will also be the development of a mass testing procedure. This testing will slow up transmission of the virus while we strive to protect the community through the vaccine. The pilot scheme in Queen's University, which used lateral flow devices to test students, has been a useful and helpful exercise in informing how this type of speedy testing can be rolled out for general public use.

We have come a long way in the fight against this virus. We have learned a lot about it. We have also come a long way in protecting our citizens. Hopefully, we are about to commence the last lap of what has been a difficult pandemic that has caused much pain, suffering and death within our community. If we stick together in the coming weeks and months, we will get our lives back and be able to do the things that we may have taken for granted before this virus reached our shores. It is certainly not a time to let our guard down or to start to relax. Complacency is the friend of the virus; there is a responsibility on all of us not to do anything to encourage that friendship.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I rise to support the motion in the hope and expectation that the Assembly will stand united behind vaccination. There are some specific issues around this motion that I want to prioritise, and there are some matters in it that remain legitimately uncertain.

First, the efforts to establish a vaccine have been a remarkable triumph of science. This motion carries, inherent within it, a clear trust of science when it comes to the development of safe and effective vaccines. Those endorsing it must also reflect that we need to trust science when it comes to managing restrictions around social distancing in order to protect public health and the health service during the period between now and increased population immunity, as is to be delivered by those vaccines.

If we are to trust the scientific experts on pharmaceutical interventions, then we must also trust them on non-pharmaceutical interventions. That does not mean that we do not challenge or debate, but it does mean that we should not be ignorant of their advice and the reasoning behind it. Indeed, the motion specifically refers to a professional expert to lead the programme, yet we have seen politicians increasingly try to overrule professional experts in recent weeks on issues as wide-ranging as the closure of gyms and the wearing of face coverings. If we are going to endorse the use of professional experts, then we have to start respecting their professional expertise. We simply cannot have parties overruling the scientific evidence in their partisan political interests on one occasion before demanding that we all trust the science and experts on another.

Secondly, which brings us to the core point that is missed in the motion, I share in the call for all of the parties in the Chamber to get behind a public awareness campaign that is focused on the need for this vaccine to protect the health of the population as a whole, and, particularly, to remove pressure from the health service. Every party leader needs to clearly commit to endorsing the use of vaccines that the regulators have deemed safe and effective and that they will fully and proactively encourage access to, and the use of, those vaccines through the agreed vaccination programme without reservation. I trust that we will soon hear a unanimous statement from the Executive to that effect.

However, I am unsure why a date — the end of December 2020 — appears in the motion. I am uncomfortable with the treatment of this issue by the UK Government as some kind of competition to get there first. We must emphasise that, while time is clearly important, this cannot rushed and that the vaccines used must be established by the professional experts to be absolutely effective and safe. We must allow for that in this process. Any vaccine that is used in Northern Ireland or anywhere else will have to have been through that process, and we want that regulation to be clearly detailed and definitive. In practice, that may mean that a roll-out is delayed if further assurances are sought. In our case, that would be by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. Alternatively, of course, if authorisation proceeds quickly, it may mean that a roll-out can begin imminently, perhaps well before the end of December. However, let us not solely be driven by time; we also need to be cautious about creating false hope that the roll-out will be completely swift. Regardless of where in the world the first jab takes place, it will be well into next year — even in the best case scenario — before we will be able to return to relatively normal lives, which will be thanks to the population immunity that will be delivered by the vaccines.

We should not underestimate the global logistical challenge. Protection only comes from population immunity, which, realistically, will need to apply across as much of the globe as possible, as quickly as possible, to enable to the safe resumption of international travel and trade. It is welcome news that at least one of the vaccines can be stored for some days in smaller sites, but the issues around haulage and storage are not to be underestimated, especially as two doses are likely to be required.

The strongest aspect of the motion is the call for a clear action plan to be published for the roll-out of the vaccine. We have surge plans and suchlike, so we need an action plan here that makes it clear who makes up the priority population groups. I welcome that the Health Minister has released the draft potential plan for the roll-out to the Health Committee, and I have had a quick look at that.

With regard to the Minister's recent decision to continue to pause shielding and the placing of that group on the list for prioritisation, I encourage him —

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I ask the Member to draw her remarks to a close.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

— to ensure that the clinically extremely vulnerable group is well up the list of people who are called forward.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP 4:30 pm, 1st December 2020

We can all agree that the recent news about a number of vaccines being developed is extremely positive. It gives us all hope of a return to normality. I must say that I am quite optimistic and excited about it.

The roll-out of vaccines will be on a scale that we have never seen previously. Given the recent issues with the distribution of the annual flu vaccine, thorough preparation must start now. A clear action plan must be developed in order to achieve a successful roll-out. The motion calls for the appointment of a medical professional to lead on the programme. I agree with that wholeheartedly. I note that, over the weekend, the UK Government appointed a junior Minister to have oversight of the vaccination in England for that specific reason.

On the delivery of the vaccine, it is obvious that current staffing levels will not be enough to cater for the demand. What discussions has the Minister had on the potential for former NHS doctors and nurses to come back into service to assist in that roll-out? Likewise, has he discussed the potential for current student doctors and nurses to administer vaccines? What about the use of the army? Obviously, training will be required for administering the COVID vaccine. Can the Minister update the Chamber on that? Given that a large number of staff will presumably be involved in administering the COVID vaccination, can he assure the House that GP practices will be able to continue to operate for those who need telephone or in-person appointments?

Another important aspect is prioritisation for the vaccine. I understand that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has released a draft priority list for those who will receive the vaccine, with care home residents and staff, rightly, at the top, followed by Health and Social Care workers and people who are over 80 years of age. However, the list goes on to make a distinction between those who are under the age of 65 and at high risk from the virus and those who are under the age of 65 and at moderate risk from the virus. We have all heard about the conditions that put one at increased risk of hospitalisation: cancer, diabetes and obesity. Can the Minister advise the House which conditions may be prioritised over certain other conditions and whether the body of evidence on which such decisions are made will be published?

I highlight the point following the roll-out of the annual flu vaccine and the shortage of supply. The chairperson of the BMA's Northern Ireland general practitioners committee said that, if the issue in the flu vaccine supply chain had been known about earlier, the over-65s who were most at risk could have been prioritised. Given the potential issues in obtaining a supply of COVID-19 vaccines when one is approved, it is imperative that the priority list is clear and well publicised.

With regard to those who were instructed to shield earlier in the year, some of the practices that delivered the flu vaccine in my constituency allowed those individuals to have their vaccine administered during an appointment. While I appreciate that practices have taken thorough measures to become COVID-secure, that allowed those people who were most clinically vulnerable to avoid the majority of those who were receiving the flu vaccine and to have private appointments. Some of those people may not have left their homes a great deal since the beginning of the pandemic. Some may be very elderly or fearful and daunted by the thought of being asked to attend a site where mass vaccination is taking place. Can the Minister advise the House whether private appointments for vaccinations could be an option for those who were shielding?

That brings me to the issue of location. I am aware that, in England, sites are being readied in preparation for the roll-out of the vaccination. Have universities or other suitable venues, such as leisure centres or church halls, been identified as potential sites for mass vaccination — particularly in north Down, by the way? On the vaccines themselves, what would happen if more than one vaccine were approved for use at around the same time? We do not yet know the conclusions on the effectiveness of each vaccine. From what I have read, it appears that some vaccines are more effective at reducing an individual's risk of serious illness from COVID-19.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. On that point, does he agree that it is vital that as much information as possible on the individual vaccines available is in the public domain?

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP

Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Yes, that is crucial. While the Oxford vaccine has shown signs of reducing the transmission of the virus, are we to prioritise certain vaccinations over others once they are approved? Some vaccines require one dose; others require two. Will there be some logic in deciding which individual receives which vaccine? I would like confirmation from the Minister that the vaccine will be voluntary, which is also very important.

I want to make it clear that I want the funding in place now to roll this out. I want hundreds of trained people ready to roll this out. I do not want any excuses or delays. I want to get back to a normal life, as does everybody else.

Photo of Órlaithí Flynn Órlaithí Flynn Sinn Féin

I apologise that some of my points will be repetitive as other Members have touched on them, but it is important that I cover them. I support the motion and join other Members in welcoming the positive developments to secure a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine.

Last week, I held engagements in my local area of west Belfast with a number of groups, including a pensioners' group and a youth group with children ranging from the ages of 10 to 18. What I found most interesting was that, regardless of age, the same question was to the fore of people's minds, and it was, "When can I access a vaccine, and when will we begin to see an end to coronavirus?".

Concerns have been brought to my attention, and some Members have touched on this, by people who had to clinically shield during the first wave of the pandemic. Understandably, they have been worried and anxious throughout this whole period, and it is fair to say that many have been living with the constant fear of contracting the virus and with the thought of how serious that might prove for them.

With that in mind, I have submitted a question to the Minister of Health asking which clinically vulnerable groups, apart from those over the age of 65, will be considered as priority groups for receiving the COVID-19 vaccination. I look forward to the Minister's briefing to the Health Committee on Thursday, when, I am sure, we will be provided with such further detail. However, today, I stress to the Department and to the Minister that central to any successful roll-out of this vaccination must be a clear communication strategy with the public on what to expect and when to expect it.

All the groups that I have spoken of — pensioners, young people, those who were shielding — as well as the wider public need firm assurances that, when the vaccine is ready, it will be safe and free, and it will be made accessible as swiftly as possible to all, regardless of age, gender, financial position or location.

The Minister and the Executive must initiate a compelling, powerful information campaign to generate maximum awareness of the importance and safety of the COVID-19 vaccine. A high uptake of any future vaccination programme will be crucial, as we all know, in defeating this virus.

People need to know and understand that countless lives are saved daily across the globe as a result of vaccines. As referenced earlier by the Committee Chair, vaccines have all but wiped out serious diseases such as smallpox, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and many more. We have a responsibility to make people appreciate and take pride in the fact that this is the chance for our generation to eliminate coronavirus.

I am conscious that today's debate will, as the Deputy Chair of the Committee and others mentioned, be of little comfort to families mourning the death of a loved one who tragically lost their battle with COVID-19. Earlier, Ms Cameron referred to the fact that, sadly, we passed the sad milestone of 1,000 deaths today. However, I hope that, in some small way, the progression of a wide-scale vaccination programme will instil some happiness, contentment or hope in the wider public and that we can all begin to plan and to aspire to live our lives just as we used to before.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

This virus has turned all of our lives upside down, and not just here. On the face of the planet, there is barely a country that has not been badly affected by the advent of this new virus. Here, it has shone a light on the inadequacies of our health service as a result of years of underfunding. As we come out of this, and hopefully as the vaccine brings an end to the crisis that we are in, I hope that there will be a complete review of the funding of our health service so that, in the event of any future pandemic of this nature, it will be ready to deal with it. The virus has also shone a light on the health inequalities in our society. As usual, those on the margins are the ones who have been the most adversely affected by the pandemic.

Those are issues for the future. The immediate future, hopefully, is bright. We have a vaccine coming to deal with the virus. We know, and this has been mentioned by a number of Members, how much vaccines have advanced the cause of medicine in the past 100 years. According to the World Health Organization, 28 diseases can be treated, and in some cases almost eradicated, by the use of vaccines, including diphtheria, hepatitis A, B and E, measles, meningitis, polio, rubella, TB, yellow fever and whooping cough. The list goes on. When the virus becomes available, I will certainly be taking it and my children will be taking it.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

We will give you the vaccine rather than the virus.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

I beg your pardon. I was getting carried away there. As I said, I will be taking the vaccine and my children will be taking the vaccine. I will be encouraging everyone to take the vaccine, because that is what we need.

One of the questions that we must ask about an action plan, which, I hope, we are going to see more detail on over the coming weeks, is this: who is going to get the vaccine? We understand that the most vulnerable should get the vaccine first, but then where will the vaccine be delivered? Whom will it go to? Will it be care homes, of course, then the over-70s, then the over-60s and so on?

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

I thank my colleague for giving way. He will be well aware of the nightmare situation that those who reside in assisted living settings have had to endure throughout the pandemic. They have effectively been unable to leave the places where they reside owing to the PHA classing them as domiciliary settings or care home settings. I am sure that my colleague will join me in calling on the Minister of Health to ensure that those who live in assisted living settings are among some of the first to receive the vaccine when it is rolled out.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

I could not agree more. That is the type of question that the Minister is going to have to answer at some stage. There is the broader question of who is going to get the vaccine, and then there is the question of at what stage it will be delivered to them.

There is another question: who is going to deliver the vaccine? I do not want to make a political point here, but some of the Members who are advocating the use of the British military to roll out the vaccine are trying to make some sort of political point. I do not envisage the British military being on the Falls Road giving out a vaccine for the virus. That is not realistic. We have enough people, and that part of the action plan that the Minister is going to roll out will need to say who will be administering the vaccine. Will it be GPs? Will it be community pharmacists, who were saying recently that they are at the ready to deliver it if they are needed? Will it be paramedics, district nurses and nurses in hospitals delivering it to staff, patients and so on? All of that detail needs to be clarified.

Clarity is also needed on where the vaccine is going to be delivered. We already heard talk about leisure centres being used for mass testing. Perhaps GAA clubs or other sports premises, where a lot of people would be confident about going for their jab, could be used as needs be. All those things are important.

Hopefully, the vaccine will be here soon. I do not have a lot of confidence in this British Government if they are behind providing and delivering the vaccine here. They have made an absolute hames of everything that they have done concerning the pandemic so far. I hope that they get it right on this occasion, that we get the vaccine soon and that we get our whole population vaccinated. In the meantime, we need to be sure that we have a proper contact-tracing system. I welcome the Minister's acknowledgement yesterday that I have some expertise in that field.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:45 pm, 1st December 2020

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close, please?

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Certainly, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It is important that we have that fallback situation in case there are any delays with a vaccine.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I also support the motion. It has been a very painful and difficult year for our society, the world, families, business and those who have lost loved ones. We have heard that in excess of 1,000 people have now lost their life to the virus here in Northern Ireland. The virus has shattered dreams, ripped the hearts from families, devastated our economy, taken people's livelihood and turned our entire world upside down, but, at the heart of the virus, there has always been our heroes in our health service. Those people have stood on the front line and have not only provided the necessary care for people who were in desperate need but have had to communicate with families who were in great pain and drive themselves beyond their own limits — emotionally, mentally and physically. It is important to acknowledge that they have led the fight against the virus and provided support to every person in our society. It has touched our heart in some way for the past nine or 10 months. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and I am very relieved to see it. The vaccine is welcome. The memory of the damage that the virus has caused will live with each of us for the rest of our life, particularly those on the front line who have held the hands of the dying, and those who have lost loved ones.

The vaccine is welcome news. Society can breathe a sigh of relief at last, but not just yet. We still have the Christmas period to get through. The slightest bit of complacency could put a life at risk. The House needs to be clear that the most dangerous period that we have faced in the last year is upon us. The Christmas period, when, naturally, we come together with family and friends, is the most dangerous and critical time. If we are taking this seriously, we need to take every necessary step to ensure that we stick to the advice.

Over the past week, I have raised the importance of getting the vaccine out to the most vulnerable. I echo the words of colleagues across the House in ensuring that that happens. I also welcome that there are five stages to the roll-out, with the first focusing on our dedicated healthcare staff, care home residents and those over the age of 80. It is my understanding that the plan will advance to those over 65, then to those under 65, then to those over 50, and then widened out to the general population. There is a job of work, because, as always, social media has the naysayers who are asking how a vaccine has been developed so quickly. It has been a global effort to save human life, and we need to be very clear that that has been the case. For the next number of weeks, we need to urge people to take the vaccine and to encourage their families, friends and community to do so. The leadership of that message needs to come consistently, clearly and strongly from the House.

As to logistics, I represent rural West Tyrone, and my constituents will be asking themselves how far they will have to travel to access the vaccine. We should also remember that many in my constituency and in other rural parts have no access to vehicles. Therefore, where the vaccine is to be provided will be critical to them in alleviating any anxiety that they may have. That is why ensuring that it goes to the hearts and hubs of communities is important.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Does the Member agree that, in order to provide accessibility and to build community support, it would be of value to talk to community groups such as the GAA or rugby clubs that provided good support at the start of the pandemic?

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his intervention. It is clear that we are all in this together. A single life lost is one too many. We all face a huge challenge as we work together to get the vaccine rolled out and to support those with responsibility for overseeing it. That is why, across these island and this island, we need to work with our counterparts to ensure that we have a united approach to battling the virus.

After that, we face big challenges. The battle does not end when the vaccine is rolled out. Work will then start to repair the damage that the virus has left in its path in mental health services, investment in rural services and the health service, as Mr Sheehan rightly pointed out. I do not envy the Minister, but I put it on record that he has my support and that of my party in overseeing a difficult and challenging task ahead. I also put firmly on the record a thank you to our healthcare staff, who have led the battle against the virus.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I welcome the motion, as it provides an opportunity for the Health Minister to confirm his roll-out of the vaccination programme across Northern Ireland.

I will take all of us on a step back. On behalf of the Alliance Party, let me say that we are extremely grateful to the scientists, biochemists, doctors, researchers, nurses, lab technicians and all who have helped to get us to the vaccine.

We all have concerns about circuit breakers and about not being able to see vulnerable family members. Some businesses are at breaking point, and, sadly, some have already closed. In the House, we are acutely aware of the pressure that the Department of Health and all working in it are under. This is the first chink of light, the first real hope of a solution that will bring the misery of COVID-19 under control and, hopefully, lead to the eradication of the virus.

The planned, large-scale vaccination programme is, I am sure, being developed with the engagement of multi-professional health experts across the system, including primary care, general practice, pharmacy, community services, care homes and school health. It is potentially linked to acute services, for example A&E and outpatients. While all that goes on, we need to consider the public. Our population needs infrastructure availability and service capacity, and all those demands need careful consideration. If we are to take forward a vaccination programme, the House wants to learn more about it. As others have said, there needs to be clear guidance for the public. We need to manage their expectations and give them confidence that the vaccine will work.

In considering how the vaccine will be rolled out, I expect that a well-organised system will break down the population into priority groups. It is, of course, vital that healthcare staff be among the first to receive the vaccine, but I urge the Minister to ensure that all key workers and front-line staff, as mentioned by the Chair of the Health Committee, are taken into consideration in the first wave. That should include the police, public transport staff, people who work in residential and domiciliary care, Prison Service staff, teachers and classroom support and foster and kinship carers. It should come as no surprise to the Minister when I say that the absolutely exhausted, unpaid carers should be in that first wave.

Mr McCrossan mentioned access to the vaccine. I worked in community transport for years before I became an MLA, providing access to services for older people and those with disabilities across Northern Ireland. It will be a key issue to ensure that people who are defined as vulnerable can get to where the vaccine will be administered. It does not matter who says what and whether it is a church or a GAA hall, a school or anywhere else: if you cannot get to it, there is no point in it being there. I ask the Minister of Health to work with the Minister for Infrastructure to ensure that older people, people with disabilities, people with limited mobility and rural dwellers all have access to a public transport solution if needed.

I ask everyone to consider 2013. In 2013, we had one of the heaviest snowfalls in Northern Ireland for years. If that happens in 2021, what will we do? We need to think about the worst-case scenarios and give people an honest-to-goodness solution. I ask the Minister for a clear public messaging campaign that needs to start as soon as he has a clear idea of what the programme will look like. We do not need any more podiums of doom, Minister; we need to look at people and ask them to work with us.

As Mr McCrossan said, there will be naysayers out there and the people who will never take a vaccine. It would not matter what the vaccine was for; they would never take it. They will say that it is all rubbish and that the Government have made it all up. However, this will save lives. Those scientists — our heroes — have come up with something that will save the lives of people across Northern Ireland. We need to ensure that the public come with us, that their expectations are managed and that they have confidence. The best place that they can get that confidence is here in the House. Leadership is unity, and unity is what is needed in the time ahead. We have lost over 1,000 people: we do not need to lose any more.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

We certainly welcome the news that a COVID-19 vaccine may now become available. We have shared in the suffering and tragedy of the pandemic with people around the world over many months — almost a year. It has been a stark reminder of our common humanity, because, as people have said, the pandemic pays no heed to borders or nationality. It has impacted on all of society, but, as others pointed out, not and never equally. Healthcare workers risked their lives on front lines to save people's lives and sometimes paid tragically with their lives, whilst billionaires, some of whom are stuck on private islands, saw their wealth increase exorbitantly during the pandemic.

The health and safety of the low-paid essential workers who kept society moving during the pandemic were treated as an afterthought by those who were most concerned with how the likes of Randox and other big corporations could profit during the pandemic. The vulnerable and the low-paid have suffered most through botched government health and financial relief policies, while the politically connected rule with one law for them and another for the rest of us. Workers and small businesses have fallen through the cracks time and again, while government contracts worth billions have been dished out to a corrupt, politically connected golden circle. Shameless profiteering has been ramped up by unscrupulous people in power during the pandemic.

The pandemic has revealed the impact of decades of neglect and attacks by government on our health service, but it has also made clear why our health service and all other public services are vital and so essential. The private sector cannot deal with a crisis on this scale, because it is geared towards profits primarily and not the health and well-being of society. The private care homes debacle has demonstrated why privatisation has failed residents, workers and families. The era of Stormont looking after the likes of Moy Park bosses while crushing the health service into the ground must end. When the pandemic finally ends, a new era of equality must begin in which our health service and all our public services are fully protected and funded; care home residents, their families and workers are kept safe and paid properly; poverty pay and zero-hours contract are ended; students are not treated as disposable; people of colour and migrant communities are treated with the respect that they deserve; and bosses and politicians are no longer allowed to shamelessly profit and make rules and laws, often to suit themselves.

We still face the immediate danger of a life-taking virus, which has been compounded many times over by the catastrophic response of the Governments on these islands, including the Executive. While we certainly welcome the potentially extremely positive news, my party thinks that several points need to be raised. We are unlikely to be able to vaccinate our way out of the pandemic, at least not this year. Therefore, there will be a continuing need to pursue a strategy to protect people. We have joined others in calling for an all-Ireland zero COVID strategy against the policies coming from Westminster, the Dáil and, indeed, Stormont.

The need for an all-Ireland integrated health strategy has been made all the more evident this week as the guidelines in the North and South go in different directions, and that is a continued recipe for disaster.

Secondly, the distribution programme for a vaccine should not be done in a way that creates disparities. It should be done on an all-Ireland basis, with healthcare workers, the vulnerable and the elderly being first in the line. We cannot have a situation where people are being vaccinated in Derry but not Donegal or vice versa. We need to make sure that the vaccine is safe, and therefore, the patent should be made available for scientific scrutiny. The vaccination science should be transparent, and that is crucial to build public confidence in any vaccine programme and to keep people safe. It is worth mentioning that Jonas Salk who created the polio vaccine said:

"There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"

It is disgraceful that the profits of major corporations could soar as a result of COVID vaccinations.

Connected to that, we need to invest in education on the scientific and health merits of utilising a vaccine, as others have said. A lot of confusion about the science is swirling around and being promoted by former US President Donald Trump — assuming that he is going to walk out of office — neo-Nazis and the far right, and other deplorable conspiracy theorists.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

Sure. We should invest in education rather than rely on punitive measures to encourage participation in a vaccine programme. Finally, as I said, my party does not think that corporations should be able to profiteer from the misery that people have been afflicted with this year.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

As Members have said, today we reached another sad milestone in this pandemic, where the number of COVID-related deaths recorded on my Department's COVID dashboard has passed 1,000. We must always remember that we are not talking about statistics but much-loved people who will be desperately missed. My profound sympathies go to every bereaved family. This is a harsh reminder of the threat posed by COVID-19, and no one should underestimate the virus or delude themselves that it can never affect them.

I am very aware that there is a small and vociferous minority who seek to play down the coronavirus risks. To anyone trying to play it down and minimise the impact, I say, please, think again. This vaccine has come too late for those people. So let us not lose or abuse the time between now and when we are able to deliver the vaccine.

I thank Members for bringing this motion, as it provides a timely opportunity to provide the House with the update that was given to the Executive last Thursday. The update will answer many of the initial questions that Mrs Cameron posed when she moved the motion.

When the Executive returned on 11 January this year, no one in the Chamber could have imagined what lay ahead or that we would soon be entering a once-in-a-generation global health crisis that would push all of us — not least our front-line health and care staff — to the extremes. However, while the pandemic has been a health crisis, the impact has been much wider, as has been mentioned. Daily life has changed beyond anything we could have imagined at the start of this year.

We are now in the midst of a further period of extended restrictions. I fully appreciate the huge impact that these restrictions are having across so many sectors in Northern Ireland and the many sacrifices that people are making. However, thanks to those restrictions, the number of infections is starting to come down, although the system is still under significant pressures. As I speak, there are still COVID-positive inpatients in our hospitals and a high, but stable, number in critical care. These are not decisions that anyone wants to take, but they are necessary. They will prevent our health service from being overwhelmed. They will save lives, and not just the lives of patients with COVID but of any patient who urgently needs treatment.

I have listened with interest to Members' contributions, and I should state that I wholeheartedly support the motion. This is an important subject and a valuable discussion, but I am sure that all Members will agree that it is imperative that we get this right.

At this point, I will take a few moments to describe the planning and preparations for the vaccination programme. As has been said across the House, we need experts to lead the House, and, as has been said by most parties, we need experienced health service professionals who know what they are doing and can act quickly and decisively.

The motion calls for the appointment of a professional expert to lead our vaccination programme. I can confirm that that has already happened. I have appointed Patricia Donnelly, who is a former director of acute services in the Belfast Trust and a highly experienced health professional, to drive and oversee the planning and delivery of our vaccination programme. She has been working extensively with officials and clinicians in the Department, the Public Health Agency and the health and social care trusts for some time, and she gave a presentation to the Executive last Thursday on the advanced stages of planning.

Vaccination plans are at an advanced stage and will be delivered over a number of phases, which will see different groups or age cohorts being invited in to receive the vaccine over the following months. The vaccination programme will build on the Northern Ireland health service expertise in delivering immunisation programmes, as was mentioned by the Chair of the Committee and a number of Members.

As Members may be aware, the UK Government have secured access to seven vaccine candidates across four vaccine types, which could result in 357 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines being made available in the United Kingdom. While I am always open to all-island solutions, the UK did not sign up to an EU procurement process as the Commission confirmed that it was not possible for the UK to pursue parallel negotiations with potential vaccine suppliers. That meant that the UK would be required to stop its negotiations with manufacturers with which the EU had launched negotiations, and I suspect that Members will agree that that would have been a mistake and a challenge.

The UK is well positioned nationally. The Government have secured early access to doses through agreements with several separate vaccine developers at various stages of trials. I can confirm that Northern Ireland will receive its Barnett share — 2·85% — of the total UK stock of COVID-19 vaccines that are eventually approved for use. It is important to say that the vaccines will be deployed only for use when they have passed the required safety and efficacy tests and received authorisation from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). I assure everyone that, while the process is being progressed as rapidly as possible, the experts in the MHRA will provide that approval only when they are assured that the vaccine is safe and effective.

Nevertheless, we expect to have authorised vaccines available for use shortly, and we are ready to begin a programme once sufficient quantities are in place. Realistically, it may be early in the new year before the full vaccination programme is in operation, but we are hopeful that the programme will be launched in only a couple of weeks in each of the four UK countries. As I mentioned earlier, the planned vaccination programme will be a major logistical exercise that will last many months and will take us well into the middle of next year at least.

Members will be aware from media reports of some of the requirements for the different vaccines in terms of storage, transport and other logistical issues. At present, the two vaccines that are expected to be used first require two doses to be given 28 days apart, which answers some of Mr Easton's questions. We are therefore planning on the basis of a number of scenarios based on different vaccines becoming available at different times. This is a developing situation, and our plans are flexible enough to respond to any emerging developments.

The vaccines will be rolled out to eligible groups as quickly as possible, bearing in mind the limitations of where the Pfizer vaccine can be safely deployed. This will initially involve health and social care workers and care home staff. It will extend to the over-80s and care home residents early in the new year as additional vaccines become available,

In addition, we are rapidly exploring the most effective way to safely deliver vaccines to other priority groups as quickly as possible. The Pfizer vaccine, which is expected to come online first, presents a number of logistical challenges. With colleagues in England, Scotland and Wales, we are continuing to work through those challenges. The handling of subsequent vaccines is expected to be more in line with that of routine vaccines. It will therefore be easier to deploy those outside of the mass vaccination sites, and it should allow them to be delivered by GPs and others, as some mentioned in the House, in the same way as the current flu vaccination programme.

I mentioned earlier the importance of getting this right. Th most important aspect of this is to have a systemic, reliable and sustained vaccination programme. While we want this to start as quickly as possible, we also need to minimise waste and, above all, ensure that vaccines are delivered in the correct environment for them to be effective. The vaccination workforce will initially be based mainly on occupational health staff, trust peer vaccinators and GP staff, who have a proven track record of delivering the annual flu programme to thousands of patients over a 12-week period. The exact composition and location of vaccination teams will vary according to the requirements of the different vaccines and the population receiving the vaccine as well as the timescales of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency approval.

On 16 November, an expression of interest was issued to all registered healthcare professionals, including pharmacists, nurses, dentists and allied health professionals, in relation to becoming sessional vaccinators. These individuals will be trained up and brought into the programme as and when they are required. In addition, we are seeking healthcare assistants and admin staff to support the programme and free up the time of the vaccinators. As always during this pandemic, I have been overwhelmed by the commitment and enthusiasm of staff from across the health and social care system. Already, almost 1,000 individuals have registered their interest in helping to deliver this programme, and over 400 applications have now been submitted.

In recent weeks, I have received a number of queries related to how different groups will be prioritised in receiving the vaccine, an issue that has also been raised here today. Vaccination policy in Northern Ireland is based on the recommendations provided by the JCVI, which advises the four UK Health Ministers. Made up of independent experts, it advises the Government on which vaccines the UK should use and provides advice on who should be offered the vaccination first. The JCVI has access to all relevant information on the COVID vaccines and to the clinical data on the groups who suffer the worst outcomes if they catch COVID-19.

Although we are not strictly obliged to follow JCVI recommendations, up to this point, Northern Ireland has always implemented its recommendations. It is appropriate that we follow its expert advice on who should be offered the vaccine first. On Friday 25 September, the updated JCVI interim position on prioritisation was published .It was produced on the basis of a combination of clinical risk stratification and an age-based approach. It has advised that the vaccine first be given to care home residents and staff, followed by people over 80 and health and social care workers, and then to the rest of the population in order of age and risk. It is expected that this will help to optimise the targeting and the deliverability of the vaccines. The JCVI position is available on its website and will be updated as more information becomes available.

An effective vaccine will be the best way to protect the most vulnerable from coronavirus. It is the biggest breakthrough since the pandemic began.

It is a huge step forward in our fight against coronavirus and will potentially save tens of thousands of lives. Once vaccinations begin, we will closely monitor the impact on individuals, on health service pressures and on the spread of the virus. As large numbers of people from the at-risk groups are given a vaccine, we will be able to examine the impact on infection rates, on hospitalisations and of reduced deaths. If successful, that should, in time, lead to a substantial reassessment of current restrictions.

In closing, I want to leave the House with three main messages. First, work to deliver the vaccines is well advanced. Our health service is primed and ready to deliver a vaccination programme, safely and systematically, and I look forward to updating the Health Committee in more detail on Thursday.

Secondly, mass vaccination is an enormous logistical challenge, and it will take time. There is no way around that and no quick fix. We expect that it will take many months before the vaccination programme is complete, and we need to recognise that we are not through this yet.

Thirdly and finally, although there is some way to go, the appearance of these vaccines is real grounds for hope. An effective vaccine will be the best way in which to protect the most vulnerable from coronavirus, and it is the biggest breakthrough since the pandemic began. Although the pandemic is not over yet, and there are still difficult decisions ahead, this may, at last, signal the turning of the tide.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:15 pm, 1st December 2020

I call Jonathan Buckley to conclude and make a winding-up speech on the debate and the motion.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I begin by thanking Members for their positive contributions to the debate and their support. There have been many dark days in the House throughout 2020, but, even as we debate the motion today, there are glimmers of light. For the first time, and on record, health officials have confirmed that if the Pfizer vaccine is given the go-ahead in Northern Ireland, it will be good to go, with roll-out on 14 December. That is something from which Members can take great heart and solace.

If I had to sum up Members contributions, I would begin with one word and one word only: hope. The proposer of the motion, Mrs Pam Cameron, whom I thank for being a co-signatory to the motion, talked about the light at the end of the tunnel. Those points were echoed right across the Chamber. Colin McGrath talked about an injection of hope. Órlaithí Flynn talked about the hopes of many from different groups in her constituency. That is something that is shared, regardless of constituency or country, right around the world.

Pat Sheehan talked about the bright future ahead. Daniel McCrossan talked of a painful and difficult year of shattered dreams but acknowledged, in a strong contribution, the support and help of the NHS staff who have been on the front line of this battle. Alan Chambers, Paula Bradshaw and Kellie Armstrong talked of their appreciation of the scientific efforts behind vaccine development. It goes on record, from all Members, that we owe a great deal to those scientists who have worked diligently to try to produce a vaccine, safely and efficiently, to deal with this pandemic.

Paula Bradshaw referenced the appointment of professional expertise in the motion and questioned some Members' sincerity on that point. Although there will always be widespread differences on the effects of lockdown from a range of experts in their field, it is right that politicians challenge those viewpoints as well. By "expert", this motion made specific reference to the logistical administration to ensure speed and accuracy of a vaccine programme.

Colm Gildernew, the Chair of the Health Committee, talked about the vital Committee scrutiny that is ongoing and hopefully will continue on Thursday. It is a vital aspect of the engagement required. He also mentioned, along with Órlaithí Flynn and Pat Sheehan, the worldwide vaccines and how they have transformed our world. He referenced 28 worldwide diseases that have been eradicated through vaccines. That is a very important point, and one that we should all bear in mind.

We are all too aware of the challenges at hand. We live in unprecedented times and face a monumental task on many different fronts on the road to a coronavirus recovery.

The effects of COVID-19 and, indeed, the consequential lockdown have presented challenges that will take a considerable time to overcome and may present some that perhaps we have not even encountered yet, sadly.

Almost all families have been affected either directly or indirectly by the virus. Indeed, the development of a vaccine is quite simply a matter of life and death for some, including those who are vulnerable and high-risk and those who are desperately waiting on a return to normality.

Amidst the challenges that we have faced, I welcome the recent breakthrough in establishing a safe and effective vaccine. We all must hope that this is the turning point, as the Minister said, on the road to recovery. That was echoed right across Members' contributions today.

Central to the fight against COVID-19 is our capacity to research, trial and develop a vaccine. From day one, as mentioned, the United Kingdom has been a leading influence in the global effort to develop a vaccine, and, to that end, we can be proud and thankful for local companies such as Almac, which is in my constituency, for their key role in the clinical trials that led to the first effective vaccines. That is an incredible contribution from the scientific field here in Northern Ireland.

The United Kingdom boasts one of the world's largest vaccine order books per head of population, securing early access to over 355 million vaccine doses through agreements with seven different developers at various stages of trials. Northern Ireland alone is projected to account for a share of nearly four million vaccines from phase 3 of trials from BioNTech, Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

With that supply network in place, it is now essential that Northern Ireland develops a decisive action plan, as outlined by the Minister, on a roll-out of a vaccine so that the wider public and those who are most vulnerable can get the protection that they urgently need. Some Members made reference to that in their contribution. I echo the points about a clear communications plan — I think that that was mentioned by Órlaithí Flynn and others — in order to ensure the safe roll-out of a vaccine and to address some of the concerns that people will, rightly, have about the speed of its development.

The action plan must be —.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. Do you agree that, alongside the plan that there is going to be, there needs to be one for easing the regulations, although obviously not immediately for all the regulations? People need to have hope that, as we start the vaccine process, we will also start to have the road back to normality. People may have a concern that we are going to be looking at a vaccine that may take until the summer to deliver, and they are keen to get back to some sense of normality soon.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

Absolutely, and I thank the Member for his intervention. It is vital that the news of and potential roll-out of a vaccine brings hope about some form of normality in the short term for those many businesses and people right across your constituency and mine who have faced the realities of lockdown and its effects on their business and livelihood.

The action plan must be strong and ambitious, detailing how workforce requirements can be met and how to maximise the number of premises where vaccinations can be administered. Members right across the House made reference to the different types of community settings that have already played a vital role, but, in anticipation of a vaccine, we must be strong and ambitious in how we can mass vaccinate our population in order to ensure that we put an end to this disastrous saga of lockdown and COVID-19.

It is essential that external professional logistical expertise is appointed to lead on a vaccination programme. We simply cannot get this wrong. I welcome the appointment of Patricia Donnelly and the detail of the decisive plan that the Minister outlined. At the Committee on Thursday, I would like to hear how the logistical expertise of the personnel that are involved can be part of that solution with the task force.

With that in mind, we must emphasise that any vaccination programme that is put in place be dynamic and flexible owing to the fact that it will be administered in a range of different settings to patients whose circumstances will, inevitably, differ. That point was highlighted quite well by Sinéad Ennis about those in a home setting who have not been able to access community facilities because of PHA advice.

I welcome that the initial recommendation set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation prioritises healthcare and care staff to be among the first to receive access to vaccines.

It is crucial that that be upheld, given the vulnerability of those whom they care for and the grave consequences of the infection being in such settings.

We must take into account the needs of conscientious objectors to vaccines and respect their right to choose. That is vital. While we sell the message of hope, we all must bear it in mind that there are conscientious objectors.

Ensuring that there are enough hands on deck to deliver and administer a vaccine — indeed, some may require two doses weeks apart, as outlined by Alex Easton — is critical to the success of the programme. At a time when the health service's capacity is under pressure, the deployment of personnel, be they from the Ministry of Defence or elsewhere, to explore the logistics of rolling out a vaccine in NI is a welcome and constructive development.

There is absolutely no doubt that the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine is a large logistical, operational challenge, but it is one that we must act on now and be adequately prepared for. Northern Ireland cannot lag behind any other region or country in its preparations. The first seemingly insurmountable challenge has been overcome. The sun is finally setting on what has been a horrendous 2020. The glimmers of a new dawn await our nation, and I hope that the Executive and, indeed, the world grasp the opportunity with both hands.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly welcomes the recent breakthrough in efforts to establish a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine; highlights the importance of Northern Ireland retaining full access to the UK Government's supply network, including national distribution plans; stresses that this approach provides the best means of protecting the wider public as soon as possible; believes a professional expert should be appointed to lead on the vaccination programme in order to ensure it is available to front-line staff and those most vulnerable in Northern Ireland at the same time as the rest of the UK; and calls on the Minister of Health to outline a clear action plan for the roll-out, starting before the end of December 2020, of a COVID-19 vaccine in Northern Ireland.

Adjourned at 5.27 pm.