Pregnant women are to be offered an mRNA Covid-19 vaccine at any stage of pregnancy, under changes to the national vaccination programme that have been announced.

NIAC has recommended that pregnant women should be offered the vaccine at any stage of pregnancy following "an individual benefit-risk discussion with their obstetric care giver".

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly announced the change, which has been endorsed by Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan.

The analysis from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee says that in recent times, pregnant women have accounted for 1.3% of Covid-19 cases notified in women.

But it says that after childbirth, women are overrepresented in ICU admissions, accounting for almost 10% of Covid-19 related ICU admissions.

Earlier this year, NIAC had previously recommended that pregnant women be offered a vaccine between 14 and 36 weeks’ gestation.

However, this has been updated based on what the department said was a growing body of evidence on the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines.

"The evidence clearly indicates that the benefits of vaccination outweigh any known or potential risks of Covid-19 vaccination during pregnancy," it said.

Mr Donnelly said: "The evidence shows that vaccination is the best way to protect both mother and baby from serious harm from Covid-19 and I am pleased to today announce that Covid-19 vaccination will be available at all stages of pregnancy."

"I am aware that many pregnant people and their partners will have questions about this update to the vaccination programme, and I encourage anyone who has any concerns to engage with their obstetric care team and the many trusted sources of information available in order to make the best decision for you and your baby."

Additional vaccine dose for immunocompromised people

Separately, immunocompromised individuals aged 12 and older are to receive an additional vaccine dose.

Updated advice from NIAC recommends that a third dose of an mRNA vaccine for those individuals should be given a minimum of two months after their last dose of their primary vaccination schedule.

NIAC recommended this regardless of whether the initial Covid-19 vaccine they received was an mRNA (Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna) or an adenoviral vector vaccine (AstraZeneca or Janssen).

"I hope that the opportunity to receive a third or booster dose of Covid-19 vaccine dose brings comfort and reassurance to people that these vaccines are very safe and effective and offer protection from Covid-19," Mr Donnelly said.

"I will now work with my Department, the HSE and the High Level Task Force to implement these recommendations as soon as possible.

"As we move into this new stage of the pandemic, it is more important than ever that all of those eligible for vaccination but who remain unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, should initiate/complete their vaccination course.

"Vaccination along with our continued adherence to the public health advice we are all so familiar with are the best ways we can protect ourselves, our loves ones and our country's reopening.

'Extremely positive step'

The former Master of the National Maternity Hospital has described the decision to offer a Covid-19 vaccination to all pregnant women, at any stage of their pregnancy, as "an extremely positive step".

Dr Peter Boylan said women should feel reassured and protected and he said he would "certainly urge all women who are pregnant to go ahead and get vaccinated, if they're not".

He said "it gives an extra layer of protection and it really is just wonderful news".

Dr Boylan said he is thinking particularly of teachers and those who are dealing with very young children, where "social distancing is not really a practical proposition".

"Teachers who are concerned in those circumstances should really feel very reassured that once they're beyond the vaccination protection period, that they'll be safe to go back to work without any concerns. It's great."

Peter Boylan also said NIAC is very conservative in its approach and he said "they wouldn't be recommending this unless they looked at the evidence extremely carefully".

"I think Ireland has shown that our scientists have acted with extreme caution, so people can be really reassured that this is very safe to do and to proceed with it."