Two of the stalwarts of Northern Ireland's COVID-19 vaccination programme are stepping down from their roles.
Patricia Donnelly was head of the vaccination programme and a familiar face on the media as she explained all the latest phases of the roll-outs. Dr Margaret Boyle served as a senior member of Patricia's team at the Department of Health.
With operational responsibility for the ongoing vaccination programme passing from the Department to the Public Health Agency, Patricia and Margaret can now pass the baton on, after a hectic 18 month period.
They have both been praised for their massive contribution to what has been one of Northern Ireland's biggest ever public health initiatives.
Health Minister Robin Swann said: "Words cannot do justice to the work Patricia and Margaret have put in or to the importance of that work. I want to thank them for their expertise, commitment and boundless determination.
"The development and roll out of the vaccines changed the course of the pandemic. We owe an incredible debt of gratitude to Patricia, Margaret and everyone else involved in the programme."
Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Michael McBride said: "I want to express my heartfelt personal and professional thanks to Patricia and Margaret. They have been central to the success of the vaccination programme, which provided hope at an incredibly difficult time.
"In total, more than 3.7 million COVID-19 vaccine jabs have now been administered in Northern Ireland, providing vital protection against the virus right across the community and saving many lives."
Patricia was tasked with leading the programme in early October 2020 while Margaret joined a very short time later. Within weeks, the first COVID vaccines had been approved for use across the UK and shortly after vaccinations began on the 8 December 2020.
Massive logistical issues had to be resolved from the start. The vaccines came in large packs, had to be stored at ultra-low temperatures, and had a very short shelf life once they were defrosted.
Other challenges were also faced and overcome. Vaccination centres were established and processes put in place that allowed vaccines to be distributed to these centres, as well as GPs and community pharmacies.
Patricia was a clinical psychologist by profession and held a number of key positions at Trust level before retiring. While she will now be stepping away from the vaccination programme, her contribution to the health service will continue by chairing the HSC Clinical Ethics Forum and the NI Bereavement Network.
Margaret was very well known to many in the Department as she had been a Senior Medical Officer prior to her retirement some 5 years ago. She was happy to come back to the Department to 'help out' with the COVID vaccination programme. The 'helping out' became a full time job and she was a vital part of the team providing medical input, as well as a great deal of number crunching to ensure the right vaccines were delivered to the right providers at the right time.
The Chief Medical Officer added: "The PHA has been working closely with the Department and the Deputy CMO, Dr Naresh Chada on the COVID-19 vaccination programme from the outset.
"As planned, it now takes on the lead role in the programme, mirroring its long-standing responsibilities for other vaccination programmes including 'flu. This is a logical step at this stage in the pandemic.
"There is still important work to do - including the Spring booster campaign for the 75 plus age group and those who have severely weakened immune systems. I would again encourage everyone who is eligible to get your booster. People are still coming forward on a daily basis for boosters as well as first and second doses. It's not too late to get protected. The vaccination programme remains absolutely essential in ensuring we continue to get our lives and livelihoods nearer to normal."