Belfast’s SSE Arena opens as mass vaccination centre
One of Northern Ireland’s largest live events arenas has opened as a mass vaccination centre.
The SSE Arena in Belfast will have the capacity to administer jabs to 40,000 people a week.
A slowdown in the UK’s vaccine supply lines will see the centre processing around 11,000 people a week initially, with the numbers ramping up as more AstraZeneca jabs become available.
The arena floor has the capacity for 60 separate vaccination stations.
It is operating as a mass vaccination site for the whole of Northern Ireland.
Several regional centres will continue to administer vaccines, as will GP surgeries.
This week more than 300 community pharmacies will also become involved in the vaccine rollout.
The SSE Arena is the home of the Belfast Giants ice hockey team, and prior to the pandemic was the region’s main venue for indoor concerts.
Its opening as a mass vaccination centre was originally expected to be accompanied by an expansion of the vaccine programme to take in the 40-49 age cohort.
That move has been delayed by a number of weeks due to the recent issues with the delivery of UK-wide orders of AstraZeneca jabs from overseas.
AstraZeneca and Pfizer jabs are currently being administered in Northern Ireland, with Moderna doses expected to be added to the rollout in the coming weeks.
As of Sunday, 850,041 vaccines had been administered in Northern Ireland – 726,589 of which were first doses and 123,452 were second doses.
The region is on course to offer first jabs to the entire adult population – 1.4 million – by July.
Gary Davidson from Lisbane in Co Down was the first to get a vaccine in the SSE Arena on Monday morning.
The 55-year-old was last at the venue with his sons to watch a motocross event.
“I feel very proud to see what’s going on in the SSE in Belfast,” he said.
“I feel as if I am protected and hopefully won’t be able to pass it on to relatives.”
Mr Davidson added: “I didn’t think I would ever be here for this, but I’m very impressed by what’s going on in the Health Department.”
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster, deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Health Minister Robin Swann visited the centre on Monday morning.
Mrs Foster said the start of operations at the arena was another step on the road to a safer future.
“The opening of The SSE Arena as a regional vaccination centre is a significant milestone in the rollout of our vaccination programme,” she said.
Ms O’Neill added: “Seeing this centre in operation illustrates yet again the amazing efforts by all parts of the health and social care family.
“Efforts not only to deliver the vaccination programme but in every aspect of their response to the pandemic, as they have worked tirelessly to care for and protect our people.
“We are all looking forward to brighter days and every jab helps takes us further down the pathway towards a better and safer future.”
Mr Swann said Northern Ireland had already made “huge inroads” in delivering the vaccine to over half of the adult population
“The opening of this centre will enable the programme to expand at an even quicker rate and I hope to announce very soon that I will be opening the programme to additional age cohorts to allow more of those eligible to book their vaccination,” he said.