The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine has been approved for use within the United Kingdom and the first doses will be administered in Northern Ireland from January 4.

“The approval by the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency paves the way for a significant acceleration of Northern Ireland’s vaccination programme,” Northern Ireland’s Department of Health said in a statement on December 30, the day the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine was approved in the UK.

“But the Minister has also warned that the coming weeks will be among the most challenging yet in the pandemic, with our health service under immense pressure."

Robin Swann, Northern Ireland's Minister for Health, said on Wednesday: “Today’s announcement is extremely welcome news and helps us look forward to the New Year with optimism and hope.

“The vaccine programme will transform the situation but that will take time. Between now and then, we need another big push to get through these next few months.

"We can all play our part in supporting the health service and in protecting each other from Covid-19. Please follow the public health advice to stop it spreading and please strictly abide by the current lockdown rules.”

BREAKING NEWS: @MHRAgovuk recommendation for authorisation of @OxfordVacGroup/@AstraZeneca's #COVID19 vaccine for use in the UK.

This follows:

✅ clinical trials
✅ data analysis
✅ MHRA authorisation

Read full statement:

— Robin Swann MLA : #StopCovidNI (@RobinSwannMoH) December 30, 2020

Northern Ireland's Department of Health said: “The approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine means Northern Ireland GPs can begin the first phase of population vaccination from 4 January, starting with those aged 80 years and over. 

“The programme will then be rolled out based on age and other clinical vulnerability factors. Prioritisation will be guided by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). The rate of progress will depend on the availability of the vaccine, in terms of both manufacture and supply.

“50,000 AstraZeneca vaccines are currently available to Northern Ireland, with delivery having been arranged in advance of today’s announcement. Further supplies are expected early in the New Year.

“The NI vaccination programme began on 8 December 2020 following approval for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Due to complicated handling constraints, the initial phase of the vaccination programme was focused on care home residents and staff which were the number one priority as recommended by JCVI.  In addition, health and social care staff in direct contact with vulnerable patients were also offered vaccination.

“Progress to date includes 80% of care homes visited, which has resulted in 8940 care home residents vaccinated as well as 10,484 care home staff and 14,259 HSC staff now vaccinated.

"In total, over 33,000 individuals have now been vaccinated.”

Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael McBride said on Wednesday: “To now have a second vaccine authorised in the UK a matter of weeks after the first is a credit to all who contributed.  

“I commend our scientists and pharmaceutical company partners, the MHRA, and most importantly every single person who contributed to the clinical trials including those from Northern Ireland.  This is a vaccine that we can take more readily to people.  It will make the task of vaccinating those most at risk and then the entire population over 50 years much more achievable.”

Patricia Donnelly, Head of the Covid-19 vaccination Programme in Northern Ireland said:  “We have been working with our GPs and colleagues in primary care for some considerable time in anticipation of this day.  

“The vaccination programme in Northern Ireland has already made an excellent start by focusing on the number one priority group as recommended by JCVI. The characteristics of this  vaccine will ensure that we can now build on that progress and more rapidly scale up the vaccination programme roll out staying in line with the JCVI priority recommendations.”

The approval of a second coronavirus vaccine for use in Northern Ireland comes less than a month after the approval of the initial Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine for use in the region. On December 8, Co Fermanagh woman Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive the vaccine when she received her jab in Coventry, and Co Down nurse Joanna Sloan became the first person in Northern Ireland, and on the island of Ireland, to receive a coronavirus vaccine that same day.

The approval of the new Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine comes the day after the Republic of Ireland began its rollout of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccinations following its approval for use in the European Union. On December 29, 79-year-old Dubliner Annie Lynch, a grandmother of 10, was the first person in the Republic of Ireland to receive the Pfizer / BioNTech coronavirus vaccine.