Friday, 3 December 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
117. To ask the Minister for Health the status of the roll-out of the Covid-19 booster programme; the issues that have been identified with the early roll-out; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [59244/21]
Wow, anything can happen during Question Time on a Friday, including getting through the list of questions.
I would like an update on the booster vaccine campaign. GPs seem to be getting on well, but I would like the Minister's view on the mass vaccination centres and the pharmacies and how they are being used for the campaign. Could he also speak to the staffing levels to provide the vaccine compared with the levels during summer? Have there been changes in the staffing levels and resources we have at our disposal?
I will caveat my response. I do not think anybody expected to get to Question No. 117, so the note I have does not include everything I would like. I will therefore go from memory, so if some of these figures are off, I apologise ahead of time.
Between boosters and third doses for the immunocompromised, approximately 900,000 vaccines have been administered at this stage. The highest priority groups were nursing homes and other long-term residential care residents, those over the age of 80 and those who are immunocompromised. They have been either substantially done at this point or have been offered appointments for boosters or third doses. The next group is healthcare workers and those in their 70s. Approximately a little over two thirds of healthcare workers and a little over two thirds of those in their 70s have now had their boosters, and many more have been scheduled. That is moving very quickly. The next groups are those in their 60s. One group I asked the HSE to accelerate vaccinations for was those who have underlying health conditions. These comprise the vast majority of people in ICU, Covid patients or people with underlying conditions. Good progress is being made on those in their 60s, and there are walk-in clinics this week. There are walk-in clinics for healthcare workers as well in the vaccine centres. Those with underlying conditions have started this week and, to begin with, they are being contacted. What I am talking to the HSE about now is whether we can expand access to those with underlying conditions, for example, by walking into a pharmacy or contacting a GP, who may well have given them the vaccine last time, or by having walk-in centres for those with underlying conditions. We are moving through those as quickly as we can. The next group is those in their 50s. I am advised that the plan for them is to start in approximately two weeks, so mid-December is the provisional date for that group.
Neither of us expected to get to this question, so I appreciate that the Minister does not have detailed notes with him. However, it has been reported that we do not have as many vaccinators or staff as we had in the summer. Is he able to speak to that? I am not looking for numbers, but is that an issue? It may not be a big one; it may be a small one.
Second, we are following a similar vaccination pathway by prioritising older people, healthcare workers and so on, as we did initially. Has there been any kind of judgment or indications as to whether there has been any drop-off in booster take-up as opposed to the first vaccine? I would be interested to hear if there are early indications or data on that. Let us be honest: we are benchmarking our booster campaign against a very successful initial vaccination campaign. The vaccination campaign and what it has done to keep people alive cannot be overstated. We all want the booster campaign to be a success. I would be interested to hear from the Minister on those two points.
I will respond first to the Deputy's second point, which was what the level of demand is like. As the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, was just saying to me, the demand in the nursing homes has been huge. There has been no drop-off. We saw over the weekend very long queues. Obviously, we do not want anyone waiting many hours for a booster, particularly in the winter, but it is at least indicative that there is a very high demand, and we have seen it grow. In fact, we have seen another big wave of interest since we found out about the latest variant. The good news is that there is strong demand and we are seeing high take-up levels, as I said, for the initial groups who have had that little bit longer, namely people in nursing homes, those in other long-term residential care, the immunocompromised and those aged over 80.
The Deputy's second question related to recruitment, which is one of the issues we are focusing on a lot on the task force. We had a great many people in the vaccine centres. There was a period between broadly the end of the vaccine programme and the start of the booster programme when we could not leave very large numbers of people with nothing to do, so many were redeployed back into-----
Many staff were redeployed into primary and acute care. Some went back into retirement. An amazing number of people had come out of retirement. Students went back to college. In recent weeks, the HSE has been successfully asking people to come back and has been deploying, where possible, from acute settings. However, the acute settings are under severe pressure and one of the areas we were able to bring staff from last time was PCR testing. We now have capacity of approximately 225,000 PCR tests per week. The students are back in college so it is more difficult. We are calling out to everyone we can to come in to allow us have as many people as possible available. Regardless of that, between third doses and boosters, approximately 210,000 vaccines were administered in the past seven days, which is good. We are looking to increase that all the time.