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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 frontline 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.

Thank you again Mr Speaker. I very much welcome the opportunity to propose this motion on behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party because today, we have light at the end of the tunnel.

I am sure all our hearts were lifted at the announcements in recent weeks heralding the ground-breaking development of vaccines to combat this horrendous virus, that has lived amongst us these last ten 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 frontline and the most vulnerable in our society.

Sadly, for many families, this vaccine has come too late. (almost 1000 lives lost to covid-19 according to the NI Dashboard).

Many homes across Northern Ireland, struggle to bear the pain of loss to this awful disease. We know of others too, for whom the mental anguish of lockdown and of fear, fear of catching coronavirus or a belief that they had contracted covid-19 and the fear of passing that on to more vulnerable loved ones, was just too much. These numbers of lives lost, will not likely be captured under the banner of covid.

So Mr Speaker, as we move ahead with plans for a vaccination programme, we do so with the memory of those we have lost at the front and centre of our hearts and minds.

Of course Mr Speaker, we are very much taking for granted, the approval by the regulator in the coming days and weeks, of these vaccines. However, that process must be thorough, it must be independent, these vaccines must be safe and they must – absolutely must – have the confidence of the public.

But Mr Speaker if and when that approval does arrive, we must be ready to hit the ground running here in Northern Ireland, to protect our people. And that is the purpose behind this motion today. To focus minds. To collectively identify issues and offer solutions. To help.

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

Mr Speaker, I want to focus my comments on three key areas – getting a plan, logistics of delivering the plan and equality of access within our plan.

In terms of planning Mr Speaker, we do come at this with the comfort, that the UK has one of the world’s largest vaccine order books per head of population.

The Government has secured early access to over 355 million vaccine doses through agreements with several separate vaccine developers at various stages of trials. The NI share of the BioNTech/ Pfizer vaccine will be around 1,140,000 between December 2020 and September 2021. The NI share of the AstraZeneca vaccine will be around 2,850,000 doses.

For that we say thank you to our Government at Westminster. And with that confidence in terms of what is coming, we could have planned to a greater degree and have not. Our constituents remain largely in the dark as to how this vaccine will be delivered and whilst I understand the need for public’s help in continuing to adhere to regulations and guidelines until it is safe to do otherwise, it is also vitally important that we have hope for the very near future. What better Christmas in this pandemic than one where we can say, next Christmas will be truly normal.

So what shape must this plan take Mr Speaker?

Firstly, it is vital that frontline healthcare workers and those who are much more vulnerable, living in care settings, those reliant on domiciliary care, those with underlying medical conditions, those most at risk, across our Province are able to avail of the vaccine at the same stage as the rest of the UK. That means accelerating this work.

Furthermore, it requires a strong and ambitious action plan for getting ready and that plan should include detail on:

  • Appointing external, professional logistic expertise and support where needed.
  • Meeting workforce requirements, ensuring staff levels can be scaled up or down and mobile where necessary.
  • Maximising available premises where the vaccine can be administered.
  • Procuring appropriate levels of cold storage and transport.
  • A strong communications strategy which addresses misinformation about the vaccine.
  • Addressing barriers to access/proximity for marginalised groups.
Preparing digital systems to capture data on who has received the vaccine and how it has affected different groups.

I do urge the Minister to address these issues in his response to this debate.

Mr Speaker, the second area that I wish to highlight is around the logistics of this plan. Put simply, have we the people to deliver this vaccination programme?

For Mr Speaker we are told that our GPs, many of whom who have not been conducting face-to-face appointments for many months now and yet they have never been busier. We understand that there has been a knock on impact in terms of workload emanating from the worst waiting times NI has ever seen for elective surgery and indeed the impact of long covid. With GPs under pressure, how can they do more? And if they are, can the Minister tell us how much GPs will be remunerated for administering each vaccination?

For Mr Speaker with GPs so under pressure, surely, we cannot then potentially reduce public access for their day to day appointments to enable them to administer the COVID vaccine?

Will others be skilled up to help fight this war against coronavirus and will they need to have a background in healthcare?

Furthermore, let us not forget that many of our frontline healthcare staff – especially our nurses – are simply exhausted having been at the coalface in this battle for months. At a time when we should be ramping up all aspects our healthcare system, we cannot withdraw more people from this task. The Minister has often said the Health Service is short staffed. This vaccination programme will only exacerbate this.

It is in this context Mr Speaker that I would 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 this vaccine, this 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.

Mr Speaker the third element is the equality of access to the vaccine.

As you know Mr Speaker, we have a diverse population. Young and old, urban and rural, those with underlying health conditions and those who do not. Those who work on the frontline, those who do not.

To meet this reality, the vaccination programme must be dynamic and flexible owing to the fact it will be administered in a range of settings to patients whose circumstances will differ.

Serious consideration must be given to mitigating any risk.

The risk to the 80-year-old with underlying health conditions living at home? The cancer patient? What about the 100,000 people named as clinically vulnerable with diabetes at the start of the pandemic, where will they be on the priority list? Those from minority ethnic background who may well be more susceptible to this virus? There are many people who have many questions about how the vaccine will be administered to them, and indeed will query the safety of it.

Furthermore, in relation care homes we understand it may not be possible to use certain vaccines in care homes due to logistical issues. Why is this and will it lead to delay for residents being able to avail of the necessary protection that they require?

We have also learnt much about the impact of the varying types of underlying health conditions. And that begs the question if priority on vaccination will be given to those on the ‘at risk’, previously shielding list. I would ask the Minister to outline, what we have learnt over the last period of time and has this learning impacted on 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?

Mr Speaker I would implore the Minister to communicate and be as transparent as possible on the roll out of this life saving vaccine. We know that some will not take the vaccine, and that is their choice and it should always be choice, but if we want maximum buy in to this programme, then communication and openness will be vital.

Mr Speaker, this is the first day of the last month of 2020, I don’t think any of us has ever looked forward to a new year as much as we have done this year.

I look forward to member’s contributions and to the Minister’s response in due course.

Thank you.