Health Service Executive chief Paul Reid said the HSE intends to begin vaccinations on 29 December, a day earlier than planned.

A small number of people at Beaumont, St James's, Cork and Galway University hospitals will receive the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine on Tuesday.

Speaking on RTÉ's This Week, he said teams were working this weekend on the registration and consent process.

"We want to do this right," he said, when asked why Ireland was not starting to innoculate people today, as is the case across Europe.

Germany and Hungary were among those to begin vaccinations yesterday.

"The intention is to start early next week, on 29 December."  He said there was a "complex consent process" with regard to the elderly and vulnerable.

Previously, the HSE had said the roll-out was not expected to begin until Wednesday, 30 December.

"What we do in the first few days is very important. We will be doing it at a pace but safely," Mr Reid said, adding that "priority and effectiveness" were key.

Listen to the Paul Reid interview below

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He said the HSE's initial six-week plan will be to vaccinate all residents and staff of nursing homes and priority groups in the healthcare system from 4 January and then move on to the wider population.

"Our concentration is to do it safely and over a three-week period across nursing homes and then to do it a second time," Mr Reid said.

"Public and private nursing homes will be completed by the end of February," he said.

Mr Reid said around 180 workers were being trained to give the vaccines in nursing homes, while there will be 1,500 administering it across hospital systems.

There will be a further expansion later with GPs and pharmacists tasked with administering the vaccines.

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Separate to Ireland's receipt of 10,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccines and an ongoing delivery of doses from January, Mr Reid said the HSE is awaiting approval on the Moderna vaccine [by the European Medicines Agency].

It is in dialogue with the pharmaceutical company in terms of a delivery schedule on that.

Mr Reid also renewed a call he made on Twitter earlier today for people to review their New Year travel plans as the number of positive tests rises, with the number of close contacts per positive case now averaging five people.

He warned that testing and tracing volumes are at "alarming" levels with a 10% positivity rate in community testing.

Mr Reid said contact tracing calls had risen from around 9,000 per week to over 30,000.

"The public can help the system not to become overwhelmed by reducing their contacts. We are calling on people to play their part in reducing transmission," he said.

Asked if hospitals could cope with the current situation, Mr Reid said there were 320 patients with coronavirus in hospitals. "Thankfully the number in ICU is staying low at 23."

He said the health service was in a stronger position this winter with 82% fewer people on trolleys and greater capacity but warned it was still a "volatile" situation due to the "exponential" rise in infections. 

The Government had made "big decisions" and it was down to the public now to take individual action that could have a "major impact".

Mr Reid said "we did predict there would be more people meeting over Christmas ... people have had a really tough year". He knows it is "hard" for the public to hear him asking them to reduce their contacts.

Nursing homes given date for vaccinations

All private and public nursing homes in the country have been given a date for on-site Covid-19 vaccinations.

Tadhg Daly of Nursing Homes Ireland said the schedule was circulated to all homes on Christmas Eve and he described the allocation of dates as positive.

Mr Daly said it had been hoped that vaccinations would begin before the New Year, but a small number will begin in long-term care facilities on 4 January.

The full roll-out for nursing homes is then scheduled to begin on 11 January.

He said that the key thing is that the roll-out is safe and effective.

"Clearly this cannot be rushed. It's a very significant roll-out. The preparation and the planning is key to a successful roll-out," he said.

Latest coronavirus stories

The coordinated roll-out of a vaccine to fight Covid-19 began today across the EU.

Three countries - Germany, Hungary and Slovakia - began giving the vaccine just hours after receiving their first consignments of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine yesterday.

Dr Colm Henry, Chief Clinical Officer with the HSE, said the arrival of a vaccine offered hope for the future.

He said on Twitter: "The sharp increase in Covid-19 in hospitals is an important reminder not to be distracted from the core actions which stop transmission of the virus.

"The arrival of a vaccine offers hope for the future; the actions we all take now prevent illness and save lives. Bígí airdeallach."

Additional reporting Laura Hogan