Stormont ministers do not want to cancel Christmas but need the public’s help to avoid a “worst-case scenario” with the spread of Omicron, First Minister Paul Givan has said.
Ministers will meet next Wednesday to consider potential new coronavirus restrictions in response to the threat posed by the highly transmissible 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.
The 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.
It is understood further modelling data presented to ministers said that if the booster programme is accelerated as planned, Northern Ireland could still, in a worst-case scenario, be recording around 11,000 cases a day in the middle of next month if no further restrictions are introduced.
That modelling said that could translate to around 1,500 Covid-19 inpatients in the region’s hospitals.
Ministers were told that those projected numbers would be significantly higher if steps had not been taken to step up the booster rollout.
If the booster programme had continued on the same trajectory, and if no further restrictions are imposed, Northern Ireland would have been faced, in a worst-case scenario, with around 35,000 new cases a day in mid-January – with resultant Covid-19 inpatient numbers of around 4,500 at the end of the month.
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.
Speaking to the media after the Executive meeting, Mr Givan said: “What I am appealing to the public is to help us so it is not at that worst-case scenario, help us to deliver in terms of greater adherence to the public health message, the uptake of the booster, that will all help us in terms of achieving a better outcome.”
He added: “My overall message to people, we are not wanting to cancel Christmas but we are asking people to be careful over the Christmas period and follow the good advice around public health.
“I want us to continue to remain open and to do that safely.”
Mr Givan said the spread of Omicron in Northern Ireland was behind England and Scotland and that presented space to allow more adults to get their booster vaccine.
He also said if measures were introduced post-Christmas, he did not anticipate them being as severe as last year, when a six-week lockdown was triggered on December 26.
“I don’t think we’re looking at the measures that were taken by the Executive a year ago being the same this year because we are in a different place because we have got the vaccination, because we have got the booster jab being rolled out,” he said.
The First Minister also called for flexibility from the Treasury in awarding funding to allow devolved regions to take measures to combat Covid.
He said: “A UK Treasury policy which only flows money into the devolved regions based upon English decisions is not the kind of dynamic environment we are operating in.
“So there needs to be a policy which allows flexibility so if devolved regions decided they need to take specific measures then we need to see the Treasury giving us flexibility around that.
“We haven’t been specific to say it should be furlough or should be another type of measure but we have asked that there needs to be flexibility.
“But if they don’t then we are going to have to look at our existing financial resources in the same way that Scotland has done.
“If there were any decisions taken by this Executive around other measures then there needs to be the financial support there for other sectors that could be impacted by that.”
Stormont’s Finance Minister Conor Murphy confirmed on Thursday that he has written to the Treasury calling for additional funding and for the furlough scheme to be reinstated.
He added: “The emergence of the new Omicron variant has significantly affected the economy with pressures being felt most acutely in the hospitality sector in the run up to Christmas.
“I have stressed to Treasury that the Executive need to be able to respond quickly and flexibly to the emerging public health position
“Having to wait to see what England’s response is in order to know what level of financial support is available here is an untenable position.”
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.
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.