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COVID-19 vaccine delays may slow wider Irish roll-out, says PM

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DUBLIN, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Ireland may have to slow the mass roll-out of COVID-19 vaccinations, including for the elderly, due to reduced supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine to EU countries, Prime Minister Micheal Martin said on Saturday.

The British company has told European Union officials that production problems will mean a cut in deliveries of its COVID-19 vaccine to the bloc by 60% to 31 million doses in the first quarter of the year.

"AstraZeneca was going to be the catalyst to be allowed to move from low level to mass vaccination," Martin told Irish broadcaster RTE in an interview, saying delivery delays would "put us in a problem".

Ireland has focused its inoculation campaign on care home residents and frontline healthcare workers so far, but Martin said the government still aimed to achieve mass vaccination by the end of the second quarter.

Deaths in the country due to COVID-19 are currently at their highest level since the pandemic began, with 44 per day on average in the past week, a senior health official said on Thursday.

The infection rate, however, has fallen sharply from a peak registered earlier in January. As of Thursday, there were an average of 2,430 new cases over the past five days, down from a five-day average of 4,473 reported a week ago.

Still, Martin said it was still too early to consider easing strict restrictions on movement and economic activity.

He said reopening schools would mean "mobilising a million people at one time", with the government leaning towards a staged return to the classrooms that could keep some schools closed until mid-March.

"The full million (students) won't be back (by then)," he said. (Reporting by Graham Fahy; Editing by Helen Popper)