The rollout of the coronavirus vaccination programme in Northern Ireland should be complete by the summer of next year, Stormont leaders have predicted.
Healthcare workers, care home residents and staff, and people aged over 80 will be first to receive the vaccine in a process that could begin next month if the required regulatory approvals are granted.
People who have signed up to become vaccinators, which include retired healthcare professionals, will also be prioritised for vaccination.
First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill outlined the timetable after receiving an update from a senior official on plans for the vaccination programme at Thursday’s Executive meeting.
In the new year, other at risk groups will be vaccinated along with over-65s, with plans to vaccinate the over-50s by the spring.
It is anticipated that everyone else in the population who wants to be vaccinated will be able to access it by the summer.
Under the UK-wide vaccine distribution plan, Northern Ireland is initially set to receive 4.35 million doses.
The ministers provided the update on the eve of Northern Ireland entering another circuit-break lockdown. Non-essential retail and most of the hospitality sector will be closed for two weeks from Friday.
Mrs Foster said healthcare workers would be a priority for vaccination.
“The plan is that between 5,000 and 8,000 can be vaccinated per day to ensure that all 100,000 healthcare staff can be covered over a three-week period,” she said.
Ms O’Neill said plans to roll out the vaccine were at an advanced stage.
“When the vaccines become available – and there are seven vaccines in total – it’s going to be transformative for us as a society,” she said.
“It’s the light that I believe we’ve all been looking towards.”
Health Minister Robin Swann also pinpointed the summer months as when the vaccination of low-risk groups would be complete.
“We’ll be looking into the summer before we get through the entire programme,” he said.
The Executive has established a taskforce involving the Public Health Agency, Health Department, Executive Office and logistics experts to take the work forward.
Mr Swann confirmed that the Ministry of Defence was also providing logistical advice.
A new interim head of the Civil Service would be appointed soon and it would be his or her job to lead the taskforce, which would also focus on the introduction of a mass testing programme across Northern Ireland.
The deaths of a further eight people with Covid-19 were announced on Thursday, along with a further 442 confirmed cases of the virus.
Turning to the new circuit-break, Ms O’Neill urged people to “throw everything but the kitchen sink” at efforts to suppress Covid-19.
She said that this would offer the best possible chance of emerging from the restrictions as scheduled on December 11.
Mrs Foster said Stormont’s chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young had told ministers that he did not currently see a reason why measures could not be relaxed after two weeks.
But the First Minister stressed there were no guarantees with coronavirus.