Northern Ireland’s Health Minister has made clear people cannot pick and choose what type of Covid-19 vaccine they receive as he moved to provide reassurance on the safety of the AstraZeneca jab.
Robin Swann highlighted that the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had found no evidence of a link between the vaccine and reported cases of blood clots in some European countries.
Mr Swann was answering an urgent oral question in the Assembly tabled in response to moves in several EU nations, including the Irish Republic, to temporarily pause the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccines.
Earlier on Monday, Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride also urged people to retain confidence in the jab as he received his first dose of the AstraZeneca version.
The Stormont Executive’s two main parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – also made clear their support for the continued use of the jab in Northern Ireland.
The focus on the vaccine programme came ahead of a key Stormont Executive meeting on Tuesday when ministers will review lockdown restrictions in the region and are expected to provide further clarity on when all school children will return to classes.
Watch: Should we be worried about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine?
Mr Swann, an Ulster Unionist, noted the decisions taken on the AstraZeneca vaccine in some parts of the EU but said he would be guided by the evidence presented by the MHRA.
“They are very clear that members of the public should continue to come forward for their vaccination,” he said.
“I want to take this opportunity to reassure everyone listening that the evidence as reviewed by the MHRA shows no correlation between the vaccine and the reported events of blood clots.”
Mr Swann was asked by Green Party MLA Clare Bailey whether people who had concerns about the AstraZeneca jab could select a different type of vaccine.
Northern Ireland’s vaccine rollout is set to be increasingly reliant on AstraZeneca, with remaining stocks of the Pfizer jab retained for second doses for people who have already received an initial shot.
“There’s no opportunity to pick and choose vaccines within our current programme,” said Mr Swann.
The suspensions in European countries came as Northern Ireland opened its vaccination programme to the 50-59 age group.
Around 30,000 appointments were booked within three hours of that announcement on Monday morning.
The decision to pause rollout in the Irish Republic was prompted by reports from Norway of a small number of vaccinated people who had developed serious blood clots.
Dr McBride, who received his shot at the Ulster Hospital at Dundonald, near Belfast, insisted the vaccine was “safe and effective”.
He said there had been no reported concerns of vaccine linkage to clotting in Northern Ireland.
“I didn’t need to be called a second time this morning when the opportunity was to get my vaccine,” he said.
Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster, who is now eligible to book a vaccination slot, urged people to continue having the vaccine.
“I am looking forward to taking it, either this week or next week, depending on when I am able to get my vaccine booked for, but it is very important that people continue to take the vaccine,” said the DUP leader.
“We have made huge progress in the UK in relation to the vaccine so it is important that people continue to do that so we can leave lockdown in the rear-view mirror and we can move on with our lives.”
Sinn Fein also backed the continued rollout of the AstraZeneca jab.
Colm Gildernew, Sinn Fein chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, said he was among the thousands in the 50-59 group to book slots on Monday morning.
“I’m delighted to say that I myself fall into that 50-59 (cohort) and I’m one of those 30,000 who has booked the vaccine for this week, and I will be delighted and will be ensuring it’s an appointment that I will not miss,” he said.
Mr Gildernew, who tabled the urgent oral question in the Assembly, had asked Mr Swann what steps he would take to maintain public confidence in the safety of the vaccine.
Dr McBride said he had spoken to Ireland’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn at “some length” on Sunday about the move to pause the rollout of the AstraZeneca jab south of the border.
“Those are rightly matters for the authorities in the Republic,” he said.
“They made a very precautionary decision, they’ve recognised that, while they assess the evidence more fully.
“MHRA has looked at and will continue to look at the evidence, and I’m satisfied that the right thing to do, the balance of risk and benefit, is to continue with the vaccine, and that’s why I’m here today getting my vaccine.”
The death of one further person who had previously tested positive for coronavirus was announced by Northern Ireland’s Department of Health on Monday along with another 121 confirmed cases of the virus.
Watch: What are the side effects of the Covid-19 vaccine?