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'No room for pseudoscience or scaremongering' in vaccine messaging, says Harris

Simon Harris has said that TDs should support advice from public health experts as a vaccination programme is rolled out at the start of next year.

Image: Gareth Chaney

POLITICAL MESSAGING ON the Covid-19 vaccine must follow the guidance of public health experts and avoid any instances of scaremongering, a government minister has said.

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has said that TDs should support advice from public health experts as a vaccination programme is rolled out at the start of next year.

Speaking on This Week in Politics on RTÉ One, Harris said that there can be “no room whatsoever for pseudoscience or nonsense or scaremongering”.

“Our citizens will have legitimate and important questions they’ll want experts to answer in relation to the vaccine,” Harris said.

“When I read in the weekend newspapers – I won’t name them because they’re not here – different TDs explaining different reasons why they wouldn’t take a vaccine, that needs to stop,” he said.

I get my medical advice from doctors. That’s what I’d want for my family and my community and that’s what we should all do.”

Harris said that by supporting scientists and doctors during the rollout of a vaccine, ”so many of the things that we’ve missed this year, we’ll be able to begin to imagine and perhaps even experience next year”.

“We have to listen to our doctors, the same people who have steered us through this pandemic and I think have done a very good job on keeping us safe, giving us good, honest advice and communications, they’ll be the same people making the key decisions on who will get the vaccine first, how will the vaccine be rolled out, and I think the job for us as politicians is to roll in behind them.” 

“Certainly, [there are] reasons to be optimistic, reasons to be hopeful as we enter 2021, but that’s not a reason to let down our guard at this crucial moment.” 

Sinn Féin spokesperson for housing Eoin O’Broin also said that clarity in public health messaging and political message will be “absolutely vital” as the vaccine is rolled out.

“There will be genuine people out there who have concerns, who have questions, and therefore particularly the public health officials, who are the people best placed to answer those, need to be supported by government in clarity of message so that everybody understands, when this vaccine is available, why certain groups of people are getting it first because they’re most at risk or they’re frontline workers in a variety of fields,” O’Broin said. 

“The greater the level of the involvement of the community and community ownership and participation in this process, the better for all of us,” he said.

We’re going to be living with Covid-19 all through next year, and that’s a reality, but I share the sense of the beginning of light at the end of the tunnel, but we need clarity, we need transparency, and crucially we need the logistics on the ground to be gotten right so we don’t have any difficulties as the vaccine programme is rolled out next year.” 

The government has signed up to six advance purchase agreements of vaccines from Moderna, AstraZeneca, Jansen, Sanofi, CureVac and Pfizer.

Ireland, along with other EU member states, is waiting for the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to approve a vaccine before one can be rolled out. 

It is expected that the first vaccinations in Ireland could take place from January if the EMA gives the green light to any of the vaccines.

Richard Boyd Barrett of People Before Profit cautioned that difficulties faced by the health sector could pose challenges during the vaccination programme.

“The question of logistics, resourcing, and the legacy of the understaffing and under-funding of public health generally in our health service – I hope these don’t become barriers to the effective rollout of the vaccine,” Boyd Barrett said.

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Independent TD Marian Harkin said she believes there is a need for a designated minister and a specific department to handle the “major” operations of rolling out the vaccination programme.

“Everything from refrigeration to locations where people will be vaccinated, those who will vaccinate them, who will train them, ensuring we have good, clear up to date information, and data storage – this is really significant,” Harkin said. 

In the UK, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been given formal approval and vaccinations will begin from next week.

Northern Ireland has received 25,000 doses of the vaccine, with vaccinators, staff and residents of care homes, and health and social care workers to be among the first groups to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

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