THE Minister for Health has been asked to allow nursing home residents choose a loved-one to be included in the Covid-19 vaccination programme when it rolls out in January.
The proposal means each of the country's 30,000 nursing home residents would nominate a single relative or friend as a "vaccine buddy" to ensure they can still get visits while waiting for the rest of the population to catch up with the immunisation programme.
The trade group, Nursing Homes Ireland, raised the issue with Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, last week to ask him to consider the proposals. Tadhg Daly, the chief executive of Nursing Homes Ireland, said they wanted the measure introduced in the early stages of the vaccination programme to ensure residents' well-being.
The Sunday Independent can reveal that the first deliveries of the vaccine to the State - expected in early January - will be enough to immunise all of the country's nursing home residents and care home staff, according to those working on the plan.
The Pfizer vaccine, developed with BioNTech, is awaiting conditional approval from the European Medicines Agency by December 29 and the first batches are expected to be delivered to Ireland very shortly after.
The first batch of the vaccine - which requires two doses - will include 300,000 doses, which is enough to inoculate 150,000 people. If, as widely expected, the vaccine is approved, it is possible that by the end of January, tens of thousands of the most vulnerable in the country - having received both doses three to four weeks apart - could be inoculated against Covid-19 by the end of January.
However, mass vaccination is only expected to begin once there are sufficient stocks of vaccines in the country.
Meanwhile the National Ambulance Service is expected to play a key role in the swift administration of the vaccine to staff and residents of nursing homes in January.
"National Ambulance Staff have competencies and are trained in administering injections and did an amazing job of doing 300,000 tests in the community," said one source.
Plans for the vaccine roll-out have intensified as the National Covid-19 Vaccine Task Force prepares to present an implementation plan to Government on Friday.
The Defence Forces confirmed that top army commander, Lieutenant Colonel Louis Flynn, is on the task force to "support the Health Service Executive in future Covid-19 related tasks".
Informed sources said that the Defence Forces are expected to play a key role in the logistical roll-out. Members of the Defence Forces are expected to assist in the distribution of the vaccine to community testing hubs that will be remodelled as vaccine testing hubs.
Military medical personnel who were trained in swabbing patients for Covid-19 during the first wave of the pandemic are to receive training on administering vaccines, the source said.
The Health Service Executive is also restructuring its own internal Covid-19 Immunisation Implementation Working Group, in a move that has surprised stakeholders.
Members were told last week that pending the restructuring, a planned meeting scheduled for tomorrow has been postponed and that subgroups are being subsumed.
In response to questions this weekend, the HSE said: "All HSE work on immunisation is progressing and we are continuing to work with the High Level Task Force on Covid-19 vaccination led by Prof Brian MacCraith."
The precise details on who will be prioritised for the vaccine is likely to be determined by the Cabinet this week.
Sources said that despite their essential worker status, Ministers do not expect that they will jump the queue although one minister privately speculated that President Michael D Higgins, (79), could be vaccinated in the first wave.
Last Thursday, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) considered a joint Department of Health and National Immunisation Advisory Council paper that outlined a provisional priority list for vaccines. Prioritisation, also known as sequencing, will be based on who are the groups most vulnerable to the virus and the allocation will depend on each vaccine's efficacy in different types of people.
Based on that logic, most in Government expect this will mean nursing and care home residents and staff go first, followed by frontline healthcare workers and older people with underlying health conditions.
Officials believe a tracking system will be crucial to tracking mass vaccinations of the population once that phase of the programme begins.
Officials do not expect that a National Immunisation Information System, that the HSE is currently working to procure, will be up and running in time, but as one acknowledges: "We do need an IT system."
This system will be used to schedule people for vaccination, record some of their personal information and list what vaccine they were given. It will also have to generate an invitation for them to come back for a second dose if required depending on what vaccine they are getting. Maintaining such a database may require the use of a person's PPS number, but this has not yet been decided by the taskforce which is getting advice on data and privacy issues.
People will also need to have a record of the fact they have been vaccinated - a so-called vaccine passport - but the exact nature of this is still not clear.
Separately, the latest Kantar poll reveals that just over half of the population (52pc) have expressed reservations about taking the vaccine. Some of those polled are worried about the haste at which the vaccine has been developed. While for others, there is a sense that maybe this is too good to be true.
Those who express greater concern are more likely to be female (57pc), those lower down the socio-economic ladder (C2Des - 56pc) and those living in Connacht/Ulster (56pc). Conversely, those putting most faith in the vaccine are professional classes (ABs - 50pc), older (46pc), males and Dubliners (45pc and 43pc respectively).
This comes as it was announced last night that another 13 people in Ireland have died from Covid-19, according to figures released yesterday evening. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre said it has also been made aware of another 456 confirmed cases of the virus, the biggest daily total since November 16.
It means there have been 2,099 Covid-19 related deaths in Ireland since the start of the pandemic and 2,048 confirmed cases in the past week.
As of 2pm yesterday, there were 231 Covid-19 patients in hospital, including 28 patients in intensive care. Five patients were hospitalised in the past 24 hours.
Of the new cases, 197 are in Dublin.
Donegal has reported 37 new cases. There were 33 in Limerick, 21 in Louth, 20 in Kilkenny and the remaining 148 cases are spread across 21 other counties.