Ministers will convene on Wednesday to decide what steps will be required in response to the threat posed by the Omicron variant.
At a meeting at Stormont on Thursday, Executive ministers received a stark briefing from officials on what the next number of weeks could hold if action is not taken.
A briefing paper warned “significant intervention” could be required immediately after Christmas to keep Covid-19 hospital inpatient numbers below 1,000.
A Department of Health modelling paper said that would be the scenario facing the Executive if Omicron turns out to be “close” to the severity of the Delta variant.
Just finished Executive meeting where we discussed developing COVID19 Omicron situation
More data available next week, which will give a clearer picture of impacts & steps we may need to take
Evidence shows that getting booster vaccine is vital in our defence – please get yours
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) December 16, 2021
The peak of Covid-19 hospital inpatient numbers during the pandemic in Northern Ireland was 1,055 in January this year.
After Thursday’s Executive meeting, deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill tweeted: “More data available next week, which will give a clearer picture of impacts & steps we may need to take.
“Evidence shows that getting booster vaccine is vital in our defence – please get yours.”
The Department of Health briefing paper, seen by the PA news agency, outlines how Omicron is expected to spread in the region.
It stressed the severity of the variant remains “uncertain” and it is likely that booster vaccinations offer protection against severe illness.
“It is likely that a peak in case numbers will occur in the middle third of January, with hospital admissions and occupancy peaking in late January/early February,” the paper added.
“The extent of the hospital peak will depend on the severity of Omicron illness, but without further measures is likely to exceed numbers observed earlier in the epidemic, potentially several fold.”
The paper said data from England and Scotland expected in the next week or two will allow the initial modelling estimates for Northern Ireland to be “refined”.
It added: “However, if Omicron is associated with disease severity close to that of Delta, significant intervention would be required immediately after Christmas at the latest to have a reasonable chance of keeping hospital inpatient numbers at less than 1,000.”
Details of the modelling paper emerged after it was confirmed that Northern Ireland’s booster rollout will further accelerate next week when vaccination centres open to the over-18s.
Some GP and community pharmacies are already offering jabs to the 18-29 age cohort.
Another briefing document from Health Minister Robin Swann, which was sent to fellow ministers on Wednesday night, sets out the next steps in the booster drive.
The document, also seen by PA, states health trust vaccination hubs will open to 18 to 29-year-olds on a walk-in basis from Monday.
People in that age group will be able to book appointments from Wednesday.
Large queues have formed at trust centres this week after the programme opened to over-30s.
Some GPs and community pharmacies are already delivering jabs to over-18s and more of these facilities will open to that cohort next week.
Mr Swann outlined plans to extend capacity at existing hubs and reactivate other mass vaccination centres, including the Foyle Arena in Londonderry and the South Lake Leisure Centre in Craigavon, Co Armagh.
He said there are also plans to set up other fixed and mobile vaccination facilities.
On Wednesday, Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer said he was “more concerned than at any previous point in the pandemic”, amid warnings over the rapid spread of the new variant.
Sir Michael McBride urged all adults to get a booster vaccine as he and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young said Omicron is likely to become the dominant strain in Northern Ireland before the new year.
Ms O’Neill has called on Chancellor Rishi Sunak to stand up the furlough scheme again so it will be ready and available for workers if more severe restrictions are needed in the weeks ahead.
On Wednesday, she said Northern Ireland cannot be held to ransom over Covid-19 financial support and be left waiting for decisions to be taken in England.
She expressed concern that the potential reintroduction of UK-wide financial support measures, such as furlough, will be dictated by the timing of the Government’s response to the Omicron variant in England.
The joint head of the devolved administration in Belfast claimed the UK Government has been slow to act in response to the Covid threat in England throughout the pandemic and insisted Northern Ireland should not be forced to delay making decisions until ministers in London take similar steps.
On Wednesday, Mr Sunak announced that Northern Ireland is to receive another £75 million to help in the battle against Omicron.
However, Stormont’s Department of Finance has insisted £50 million of the sum referred to by the Chancellor is not new money and has already been committed to the Executive.
The deaths of a further six patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 were reported on Thursday, along with another 2,237 confirmed cases of the virus.
On Thursday morning there were 309 Covid-positive patients in hospital, of whom 32 were in intensive care.