Coronavirus: UK vaccine offer to Ireland 'a runner', says Arlene Foster

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Dublin vaccination centreImage source, Reuters

It could be a "runner" for the UK government to offer Covid-19 vaccines to the Republic of Ireland, Stormont's First Minister Arlene Foster has said.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader had recommended the plan to Prime Minister Boris Johnson during his visit to Northern Ireland this month.

Mrs Foster told Irish national broadcaster RTÉ she would be "making that point again" when they next meet.

A UK government spokesperson said there was currently no surplus of vaccine.

It quoted a cabinet source who said the idea was both "good politics" and would address "genuine public health concern in Northern Ireland".

With a much faster rollout of the vaccine north of the Irish border, the newspaper said the offer would help Northern Ireland's effort to ease lockdown measures.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Arlene Foster says she raised the matter with Boris Johnson when they met this month

In response to the article, the UK government said it would consider distributing a surplus of vaccine "as they become available".

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said he was not aware of an offer in relation to vaccines from the UK government.

"Of course, if there was we'd be very interested in talking to the British government about that," he told RTÉ.

"There may well be excess vaccines at some point in the future but I don't think we're realistically looking at that for many, many weeks yet."

'No specific plans'

BBC News NI understands the UK government expects to have surplus supplies later this year.

However, that will depend on supply chain reliability and whether new vaccines are needed to deal with variants or be used for booster jabs in the autumn.

Colm Gildernew, a Sinn Féin MLA and the chair of the Stormont Health Committee, said the suggestion that the UK government would share supply with the Republic of Ireland was "welcome news".

But he said the health departments in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland "need to urgently address ongoing weaknesses in the coordination of the response to the pandemic across the island".

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
Arlene Foster received her first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine on Saturday

Mrs Foster said it was important to "continue the conversation" about the UK supplying vaccines to the Republic of Ireland.

In her interview with RTÉ, she said: "I will be listening very carefully to what our medical advisers are saying about the rollout of the vaccine in Northern Ireland, where it is in the Republic of Ireland and what that means for both jurisdictions."

Asked if she had discussed the idea with Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Micheál Martin, she said she had not spoken to him "for quite some time now".

Mrs Foster said the EU had been too slow in how it had procured vaccine supplies.

As of Sunday, 850,041 Covid-19 vaccines had been administered in Northern Ireland.

Some 726,589 of those were first doses and 123,452 were second doses.

In its latest figures from Thursday, the Irish health authorities said 760,168 vaccines had been administered, 548,945 of them first doses.

The pace of the vaccine programme in the Republic of Ireland is similar to much of the rest of the EU, which lags considerably behind the UK.

'Collective effort'

This month Health Minister Robin Swann said every adult in Northern Ireland would still get their first vaccine dose by the end of July.

The programme in Northern Ireland is due to expand on Monday with the opening of the SSE Arena in Belfast as a vaccination centre.

Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon said it would be one of the busiest vaccination centres, with the capacity to vaccinate up to 40,000 people a week.

"This part of the city will see increased level of traffic in an area where there is limited parking," she said.

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She has given details of a traffic management plan for the centre, including the suspension of parking costs in Eastside and Northside car parks in the city.

As well as the availability of some free car parking, there will be a shuttle bus service to and from the arena.

"I would ask those travelling to the SSE for vaccines to use the free bus service to get to the centre," said Ms Mallon.

The public transport options for travel to the SSE Arena include:

  • Free shuttle bus service from the Europa Buscentre every 15 minutes from 07:45 to 20:15
  • Free shuttle bus service from the Northside park-and-ride every 10 minutes from 07:40 to 20:20
  • G2 Glider service operating every 15 minutes from the city centre
  • Train service to Titanic Quarter station, a short walk from the arena

Two more Covid-19-related deaths were recorded in Northern Ireland by the Department of Health on Sunday, meaning its total number of deaths is 2,111.