Jackie Baillie (Labour), FM Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) and Ruth Davidson (Conservative).
By Bill Heaney
A feisty debate over the SNP Government’s performance in rolling out the vaccines broke out at Holyrood yesterday between the three women currently in charge of the main parties.
And it ended with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon claiming she had been “mocked” by Ruth Davidson, the interim leader of the Conservatives.
Contributions by Dumbarton MSP Jackie Baillie, who is currently in charge of the Labour Party, which lost Richard Leonard to resignation last week, were mild by comparison to Sturgeon and Davidson whose exchanges often descend into straightforward insults.
Davidson set the ball rolling when she claimed hundreds of thousands of doses of Covid vaccine were not reaching general practitioners quickly enough.
She said: “The questions asked were based on evidence—the testimony of GPs, the GP chair of the British Medical Association Scotland and of Scots over 80 years old who have heard nothing about when they will be called.
“In response, we heard a bizarre rant about the United Kingdom Government throwing a so-called “hissy fit” about the publication of sensitive future vaccine supply figures.
“It was quite the change in tone from the profuse apology of the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport [Jeane Freeman] on Friday.
“The First Minister got what she wanted, which was a cheap headline, but the country did not get what it needed, which was answers.”
She asked: “Instead of trying to throw blame on to others, will the First Minister finally explain to the country why the vaccine roll-out is lagging behind in Scotland?
“Why are hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses not reaching GPs and patients quickly enough?”
Sturgeon replied: “First, the vaccination programme is not “lagging behind” in Scotland. Yesterday, I set out that we had very deliberately focused first on elderly residents in care homes because, according to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, those are the people who are most vulnerable to becoming ill with and dying from Covid.
“We have now vaccinated with the first dose more than 90 per cent of those elderly residents of care homes. We think that that will have the biggest and most immediate impact in reducing the death toll from the virus, which, as we heard from the figures that I reported today, is still far too high.“The reason why the overall numbers are lower at this stage, because of that focus on care homes, is because it takes longer and is more labour intensive to vaccinate in care homes than in the community. Interestingly, “The FM added: “On GP supply, every day, I look, as does the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, at those numbers. I go to sleep at night with them in my head, and wake up in the morning with them in my head, as is right and proper.
The shipment of supply into Scotland has not delivered enough packs for all GPs .
“AstraZeneca vaccine, the one that is being used by our GPs, normally comes in packs of 100 doses and sometimes in packs of perhaps 80 doses.
“The shipment of supply into Scotland has not until recently delivered enough packs for all GPs to have one—we should of course remember that some GPs will require multiple packs, because their patient populations are bigger.
“The figure will be moving all the time, but, right now, 75 per cent of GP practices either have or are in the process of getting supply. That figure will never be 100 per cent, because not every GP practice is participating in vaccination.
“Vaccination of the over-80s is now picking up. We now reckon from management information estimates, which will be published weekly, that around 20 per cent of over-80s have been vaccinated.
“We can see from our daily figures that our community vaccination programme—the vaccination programme overall—is ramping up.
“The number of vaccines that were administered on Monday this week was 19,600. That is an increase of 56 per cent on the previous Monday. Our rate of increase is higher as we come out of care homes and go into the community.
“We are on a trajectory of increasing vaccination as we step up and pick up the pace in the over-80s. Of course, we are working to a target of vaccinating all over-80s, indeed, everybody in the JCVI groups 1 and 2, by the first week in February.
“The progress of the vaccination programme is strong. My job and that of the health secretary is to ensure that it remains so.”
Ruth Davidson persisted: “Prioritising care homes, as the Scottish Conservatives have always argued that we should, does not explain why GP surgeries, which should have doses of vaccine sitting in their fridges, do not have those.
“The problem is the insistence from the First Minister that all is on track. The health secretary, Jeane Freeman, said on 11 January that all over-80s would have the vaccine by the end of this month; that is 31 January.”
She said Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, had now rowed back on that statement and pushed the date back to the end of the first week in February, and now the FM and Health Minister were doing the same.
She asked: “The First Minister called the vaccination programme a race against Covid and I share her sense of urgency. Why are we already falling behind?
“A fortnight ago, the Scottish Government was sitting on enough stocks to vaccinate 87.5 per cent of its target groups. It has had them for a fortnight.
“Today we hear that 309,909 people have received the vaccine, which is 55 per cent, and now the delivery date has slipped by a week. Why? Can the First Minister confirm that the stocks from two weeks ago have reached GPs?”
The First Minister said: “First, there is a difference—those of us who pore over this on a daily basis have to understand these differences—between allocation, delivery and what we have in hand in Scotland. The majority of doses that are in Scotland are actually already in people’s arms and the rest of them will be supplying general practices and other vaccination centres to make sure that over the next few days they get into people’s arms. That is how a supply chain works.”
Davidson waded in: “There we have it, this is not a slip, it is a refinement. Problems have been building for some time and the Scottish Government continues to stand by and furiously repeat that everything is fine, but GPs and the BMA are sounding the alarm and raising the red flags, not to be awkward, but because they and we and everyone want vaccination to work and time is of the essence.”
Jackie Baillie was more composed and concentrated on vaccine waste. She said: “There is nothing more important currently than the roll-out of the vaccine. We need to fight the virus, and every drop of the vaccine should find its way into people’s arms.
“Last week, the Government published the Covid-19 deployment plan, which allowed for 5 per cent of Covid vaccines to be wasted.
“I entirely accept the need for planning assumptions when rolling out a vaccination programme, and I welcome the fact that the programme is doing better than the worst-case scenario.
“However, at the weekend, wastage was at 1.82 per cent. To put that in real terms, that is something like 5,000 doses since the roll-out began, when people desperately need this vaccine. Are we to believe that that is all to do with burst vials and spillages?
“When Professor Jason Leitch was asked about wastage at the COVID-19 Committee last week, he was able to provide an example only of what would happen to unused vaccines in a hospital setting.
“Has guidance been supplied to general practitioner surgeries and mass vaccination centres to ensure that they have a reserve list of high-risk patients, in order to avoid wasting the vaccine?”
The First Minister assured her: “Guidance is published on a range of things. I will specifically check the state of the guidance on those particular points and we will circulate that. If there are areas where we have to give more guidance, we will do that. It is in nobody’s interest to have doses of the vaccine wasted.”