Northern Ireland’s First Minister has said a Covid vaccine producer raised concerns with her around the potential impact of the NI Protocol on the supply of medicines to the region from Great Britain.
There is a grace period of a year on checks on medicines moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland under the post-Brexit arrangements.
Arlene Foster said AstraZeneca raised the matter in a meeting with her on Friday.
The meeting came before the EU moved to place temporary export controls on any Covid-19 vaccines moving from the bloc into Northern Ireland.
The bloc triggered Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to prevent free movement of vaccines from the EU into the region.
The move, which came amid a deepening row with AstraZeneca over its supply contract with the EU, was part of a wider bid to control exports of vaccines from the bloc.
Mrs Foster’s meeting with the company focused on another aspect of the protocol’s trading arrangements – the movement of goods from GB to NI.
She said clarity was needed on continued ability to move vaccines across the Irish Sea before the end of the year grace period “so there is not a cliff edge” in terms of supply.
“We need to listen very carefully to their concerns about the end of the year and make sure we take those to Michael Gove and others in the UK Government,” she said.
“There is currently a derogation, but Government must be awake to this challenge and explain how they are going to get medicines to Northern Ireland from January 2022.
“I assured AstraZeneca that we were already raising these matters with the Government and I would be meeting Michael Gove in the coming days where we would again be raising this issue as well as others.
“We have agreed to meet again shortly and continue this dialogue.”
Last November, Dr Richard Greville from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that flexibility for 12 months should allow enough time to amend the medicines supply chain.
Mrs Foster said she had a “very useful and constructive” remote meeting with AstraZeneca.
“AstraZeneca has committed to provide 100 million doses for the UK, and it is their intention to have 30 million vaccinated by the end of the first quarter,” she said.
“I was encouraged that they have established 20 independent supply chain arms for different parts of the world and believe their UK supply line is extremely robust as it is now extensively an internal UK operation.”
Vaccinations are being rolled out with pensioners over the age of 70 receiving the AstraZeneca jab from their GPs while those over the age of 65 have been invited to book appointments for the Pfizer dose at regional centres.
Concerns have been voiced by some about the twin-track approach, with complaints people in the 65-69-year-old age bracket may receive the vaccination before older pensioners and younger people who are clinically vulnerable.
By Friday, some 220,201 doses of the vaccine had been administered, including 196,131 first doses and 24,070 second doses.
Mobile vaccination teams have administered first doses in care homes – and second doses to over 80% of the homes.
Some 83% of the 80 year olds and over have been vaccinated, and jabs are being administered to the 70–79 age group.
Meanwhile 39,825 people in the 65-69 age group have booked their vaccination appointments in one of seven regional vaccination centres.
Patricia Donnelly, head of the vaccine rollout in Northern Ireland, said the AstraZeneca vaccine is easier to transport so is being used in GP practices, whereas the Pfizer jab is more suited to the larger regional centres.
“We have been working with GPs, we have been working our way through the priority groups and we had an opportunity that we recognised in the last week that as the end of the first stage of the programme of the Pfizer vaccine in the larger vaccination centres was coming to a close, we had more Pfizer vaccine than we had predicted,” she told the BBC.
“We had to find a way to use it and we couldn’t give it to GPs, it comes at ultra low temperatures, in very large packs and only has five days to use up, therefore we needed to look at who we could take into the mass vaccination centres and who we could do that quickly with.”
She said it was easier for GPs to continue with their plans to vaccinate the over 70s, and for the regional centres to take over 65s, an age group which also matched the 90-100,000 doses of Pfizer which they had.
Further supplies of the AstraZeneca jab are due to arrive in Northern Ireland this week and next and will go out to GPs.
Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride was also asked about the vaccinating of the chief executives of the heath trusts in Northern Ireland with frontline staff.
“There is no clear cut definition of front line … there is no neat answer to that,” he said.
However Dr McBride said he felt the responsible thing for him to do personally was to take all measures to protect himself and his family from the virus.
“I will take the vaccine when it is my turn, when the vaccine is offered to me,” he said.
The deaths of a further 22 people who had tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland were announced on Friday, along with another 669 positive cases of the virus.