Season three of Covid-19 is here, and it's darker, nastier and a lot more frightening than the first two.

Of course, it's full of many of the familiar characters, the antagonists and heroes of the first two instalments, with familiar lines and plots.

But there is something different now.

We have a twist, a promising new protagonist to help save the day, The Vaccinator.

This season promises a lot. There is no spoiler alert, as we do not know if it ends with this, or if a fourth season will be commissioned.

Vaccination may not be the golden bullet, but it certainly is a critical part of our arsenal.

The public is pinning a lot of hope on vaccination, to help get Ireland out of major lockdowns and society and business back to some normality.

We currently have modest supplies of the Pfizer-BionTech vaccine since St Stephen's Day and the Moderna vaccine was approved during the week by the European Medicines Agency.

The AstraZeneca Oxford vaccine could be approved by the EMA by the end of this month.

Time is of the essence now and it's about the speedy, efficient and safe roll-out.

Towards the end of last week, the HSE said that over 13,000 doses had been administered.

Vaccine supplies are an issue. Yesterday, the European Commission extended its contract to purchase another 300 million doses of the Pfizer-BionTech vaccine. This will double the EU order, but the second batch will not begin to be available until the second half of the year. There have been many questions this week as to whether the Commission bought too few vaccines in its first order.

Here, people want vaccination to be a military-style process, utilising the best of the public and private sector. As of now, GPs and pharmacists are not involved, but they are due to be at a later stage.

I have spoken to GPs who have expressed astonishment at what they view as a lack of urgency in the vaccine roll-out here and are critical of the failure to involve GPs at this point.

A good GP practice with around seven doctors/nurse practitioners and admin staff could administer around 500 doses of vaccine in an evening.

Patients would queue up supermarket-style, with social distancing - in one door and out another after receiving the jab.

Many GPs are also surprised that family doctors are not providing vaccination in tandem with the other vaccinators that are working at this time.

Certainly, the shortage of vaccine and uncertainty regarding regular supply lines is a factor in the current progress of the programme.

Vaccination in nursing homes is under way. But according to Nursing Homes Ireland, it is currently being provided by the HSE on a five-day-a-week basis. NHI says that a seven-day-a-week vaccination programme for nursing homes is to be introduced following talks.

Prof Brian MacCraith, who chairs the Vaccination Task Force, has rejected suggestions that the roll-out has been slow. He said the number of people receiving the vaccine should be limited only by the supply of vaccine. He also pointed out that the only thing that can be said with absolute certainty, is that Ireland will receive 40,000 vaccines a week from Pfizer.

With the surge in cases and growing pressures on the health system, the State will need help from private hospitals. A deal has been agreed with the Private Hospitals Association, representing around 18 hospitals. It will be a one-year agreement, unlike the previous one under which the State effectively took over private hospitals completely. Private hospitals would be expected to provide around 25% of their beds this time, with a payment system linked to service delivery.

An independently overseen mechanism to trigger the use of capacity in private hospitals is expected as part of the deal, the trigger criteria based on Covid-19 case numbers and other data like the R number.

Private hospitals are being asked by the Government to 'put on the Green Jersey' and sign up. However, if private hospitals are to take on public patients from the HSE, they will also want their frontline health staff to have equality of access to vaccination, which is under way in public hospitals.

Private hospitals have around 50 intensive care unit beds, some of which the HSE may need to use, given that case numbers here may exceed the ICU capacity in public hospitals.

Yesterday, official figures from the HSE put the number of adult ICU beds staffed and open in the public system at 277. That's a similar, if not slightly lower number than last September, when the HSE's Winter Plan was announced, promising extra ICU beds.

Although some extra ICU beds have been put in place, it all seems very slow. The HSE has said that bed numbers were at 255 early last year, increased to 287, and by the end of this year there will be 321. The aim in time is to have 450 ICU beds. The problem is that the crisis is here, the pandemic is now and the beds are likely to be needed shortly.

When a war is coming, you build new defences and reinforce others. That's what pandemic plans are supposed to be about.

It's become a familiar line from the HSE that it is regularly 'ramping up' capacity in various areas, aiming towards, or planning to have capacity, at some date in the future. It applied to the build-up of the test and trace system, with recruiting swabbers and contact tracers last year, the promise of extra hospital beds and now the vaccination roll-out. Although it must be recognised that much has been achieved by the HSE and individual health staff in this pandemic, the promise of future capacity, to deal with the crisis today, is a problem.

The provision of weekly vaccination figures by the HSE is welcome. Soon, the public will want to see daily vaccination figures, like the daily Covid-19 case numbers, along with the percentage of various targeted sectors that have been immunised. Vaccination is the one big ray of light ahead and nothing should get in the way of its proper delivery. Excuses will not be tolerated.

While the Pfizer-BionTech vaccine comes in vials labelled as providing enough for five doses, after thawing and mixing the contents, there is enough for six doses. In some countries, the final dose was being discarded because there was no explicit approval from the makers to allow use of the sixth dose. The latest advice from the EMA effectively means that if a sixth dose can be secured from the vial, it can be used.

This week, it emerged that the HSE was still using a 20-year-old computer system to manage its Computerised Infectious Disease Reporting (CIDR) system in the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.

It could not cope with case numbers exceeding around 2,000 a day in recent weeks and that resulted in the backlog of reporting cases we have seen.

A fix to the computer system has now been put in place. HSE and NPHET officials defended the situation this week, saying that the number of cases was not foreseen and it had challenged the computer system in a way that was not anticipated. But does that defence stand up?

In March, Ireland entered the pandemic, with an infectious disease computer tracking system that had served the health system well up to that point, dealing with small numbers of infectious disease cases being reported each week. But what was coming from March was new. Dire case numbers were predicted under various modelling scenarios back in March. So, we knew what was coming could be very bad indeed. And the system needed to be prepared.

In mid-March last year, documents I secured from the HSE projected that in a worst case scenario, up to 10,000 beds would be needed for Covid-19 cases. Also in March, the HSE said it could not dispute projections that 1.9 million people in the Republic of Ireland could fall ill with coronavirus, but the modelling scenario was not completed yet. Thankfully, we have seen nothing near those numbers. But it goes to my point as to why a totally modern disease reporting computer system was not put in place, at the very start of the pandemic, to deal with the potentially major case numbers being predicted by the health service itself?

The middle of battle is hardly the time to upgrade the hard drive.

The novel variant of the coronavirus emerged in southeast England as far back as September. The UK detected the new variant of Covid-19 in November, following an investigation of the increasing number of cases in the region.

On 15 December, Dr Cillian De Gascun, Head of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, said that as of that time, the new variant had not been detected here. In late December, health experts here said that the variant was likely to be circulating, but there was no official confirmation. On Christmas Day, the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, confirmed that the variant had been detected using whole genome sequencing at the National Virus Reference Laboratory at UCD. Genomic tests had detected the variant on Christmas Eve here.

We now know that the variant is about 25% more transmissible and that 41% of people travelling into Ireland from the UK who tested positive had the variant.

Questions are being asked if we did everything possible to identify and sequence the new variant here as soon as possible and if there was an undue delay in acting on inward travel to Ireland from Britain, given that the new strain was first detected in November. In the heat of battle, with lives at stake, we must be nimble and fast and use all the elements in our armoury.

Over the festive season, around 54,000 people travelled into Ireland. Last night it was announced that the South African variant had been detected here.

There is no sugar-coating it. The latest restrictions are a bitter pill to swallow and will be here for quite some time.

This week, the Irish Pharmacy Union reported that more anti-depressant medication was dispensed every month last year by pharmacists, compared with the previous year.

So many people have understandably needed extra help.

GPs will tell you how many patients they are now dealing with are brittle, physically and mentally, and may not survive this third lockdown.

The health system is entering a very difficult time for the next few weeks, with rising hospitalisations and ICU numbers.

Unfortunately, this will result in an increased number of deaths.

This third lockdown will probably be the longest and hardest. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said this week that if he was running a business, he would be anticipating the restrictions being in place to the end of March.

We are at war with the virus - people are fighting with others about the collective response and battling within themselves too.

This is energy-sapping, but no moment for defeatism.

It's also a time to focus on the things that matter now and avoid getting caught up in some of the distractions that are part of the fog of war.

We all need to hold on tight and build a spiritual and mental bridge to get us through this dark period.

We have experienced every season with Covid-19 now, Spring through to Winter.

Some of the darkest moments have been during the brightest of times.

Like bad poetry, the world may appear to be without rhythm, or rhyme.

And the virus has pushed people to the borders of their lives, and many have not returned.

But better days are coming; this year promises much more hope than the last.

We are still in a fierce battle.

A war unlike any other, with one clear enemy.

You are the last line of your own defence.