By Bill Heaney
Dumbarton MSP Jackie Baillie told the Holyrood parliament today that some people in earlier priority groups are being left waiting for their first dose while vaccinations proceed for over-65s in other places.
She gave one example is Kate, who is 96 – “She lives in her own home and has carers in four times a day, but she has not received a vaccination invite. Her family do not live close by and she is unable to contact the general practitioner herself because she has dementia.
“Also, Margaret and Bill. Both are over 70 and Margaret has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but they, too, have yet to receive a vaccination invite. Their GP has no information, as the practice is not administering the current tranche of vaccines.
“Last Friday, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport [Jeane Freeman} said that all over-70s would have their appointment by the end of the week. When that did not happen, people started to worry.
“Can the First Minister explain what has gone wrong to leave people such as Kate, Margaret and Bill in the dark?”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “Nothing is going wrong. I will say two things. Any MSP on any side of the chamber who has individual cases of people not getting a letter should pass those on. MSPs should pass those details on, and we will look into them.
“Anyone who is in a priority group and who is worried about not having had an appointment yet can contact the vaccination helpline. I think that the information has already been given to all MSPs, but I repeat it for the benefit of people watching. If anyone is worried about their appointment or not having had their letter yet, they can phone the helpline on 0800 030 8013.
“The letters for the 70-plus age group and those in the clinically extremely vulnerable group will go out by the end of this week. Most will already have had them or will be getting them as we speak. All of that group will be vaccinated with the first dose by the middle of February.
“I wondered how long it would take for MSPs in the Opposition parties to start to criticise this. In order to vaccinate faster, some health boards are grouping those in the 65 to 69-year-old age group in with the over-70s. They are not waiting to vaccinate them sequentially—they are doing them all as one group. There will therefore be cases in which somebody in that age group is vaccinated a few days before somebody in the older age group, but the over-70s will all be done by the target date, and we are on track to meet that.”
Jackie Baillie persisted: “It is not a criticism. It is about the lack of information that is causing confusion out in our local communities. I will not be alone. My inbox is full of similar cases to the ones that I described. Those examples are not one-offs but part of a growing postcode lottery in vaccine roll-out that is slowing Scotland’s recovery from Covid.
“The weekly Public Health Scotland figures show huge variation across the country in the proportion of the population receiving the vaccine. Some parts of mainland Scotland, such as Moray and Angus, have vaccination levels of more than 10 and 13 per cent, but areas where the virus levels have been persistently high, such as Glasgow, Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, have only reached levels between 6 and 8 per cent. Meanwhile, Edinburgh is lagging far behind, with only 5 per cent of its population receiving a first dose.
Debate over vaccine distribution – Jackie Baillie, Nicola Sturgeon and a vaccine station.
“The figures published today have had the percentages removed, so we cannot easily monitor progress. Whether that is a deliberate lack of transparency or a genuine error, it is not acceptable that people are penalised by their postcode when it comes to vaccination. What is the First Minister doing to fix that?”
Nicola Sturgeon told her: “People are not being penalised because of where they live. There will be differences in speed because of geographies and how different health boards are organising the programme to take account of the differences between urban and rural areas and the different sizes of communities, but all health boards are making progress.
“As I think I said earlier, I will be meeting the chief executives of all health boards this afternoon to make sure that they all have plans in place to allow them to make fast but steady progress through the programme, which is a matter of daily monitoring.
“On transparency, we are publishing more daily information with greater breakdowns than any other part of the United Kingdom is and we will continue to supplement that as we go along. I readily say, as I did yesterday, that I welcome the scrutiny and pressure from Parliament on vaccination, because it is important that we go as fast as we can to protect as many people as possible.
“On information, we set up the helpline for which I gave the number a moment ago so that there is a point of contact. I get lots of emails about vaccination, as I am sure other members do. We address any concerns in those but, increasingly, the emails that I get each day are from people who say, “I have had my vaccination and I am really pleased about it.”
“There is lots to do and there are lots of people yet to vaccinate, both in the 70 to 80 age group and as we get into the younger age groups. However, we can see from the figures for this week that, having achieved high uptake rates in the most vulnerable groups, the programme is accelerating through the other groups as well. We will keep an absolute focus on making sure that that continues.”
Jackie Baillie said she welcomed the acceleration of the programme – “but people across Scotland expect to be treated equally, not to have their chance to have a vaccination determined by where they live. It is becoming harder to work out how the Scottish Government measures success in the vaccination programme. Our roll-out is much slower than those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The First Minister says, rightly, that it is not a competition between nations, but it is a race against the virus and we are not going fast enough.
“The First Minister says that we are following the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation priority list, but in different parts of the country there is a postcode lottery. That is not the fault the vaccinators. They are doing a tremendous job. However, general practitioners tell me that they are simply not getting enough supply and that supplies are erratic.
“Even by the First Minister’s own promises, we are falling behind. First, it was 1 million vaccinations by the end of January, but there have been fewer than 600,000. Then it was all adults over 18 by spring; now it is for just the over-50s by May. We were told that the vaccination programme was ramping up, but on Sunday we recorded our lowest daily rate so far. For the First Minister to meet her next promise of vaccinating all over-70s and the clinically vulnerable by 15 February, our daily rate needs to increase immediately to at least 40,000. Does the First Minister expect her latest target to be met, or will it be her latest broken promise?”
NIcola Sturgeon replied that there was any postcode lottery – “Yes, I expect the target to be met, because the target that we have been working to for the past couple of weeks for the over-80s has been exceeded, not just met, by the target date. It is interesting. I have said before and say again that I welcome the scrutiny, but Opposition parties could occasionally try to hide the fact that they are obviously deeply irritated at the fact that the programme has been accelerating. It is perfectly legitimate to mention Sunday, but today we have reported the highest total of vaccinations in the whole programme so far and there is not a lot of mention of that.
“Jackie Baillie asked me how we measure success in the programme. Here is one indicator: 98 per cent of the most clinically vulnerable people in the whole country—older people in care homes—have already been vaccinated in Scotland. In addition, 90 per cent or thereabouts of the next most vulnerable group—the over-80s—have already been vaccinated with the first dose of the vaccine. I cannot tell Jackie Baillie what the figures are in England for those groups because, to the best my knowledge, they are not being published on a daily basis and Michael Gove could not tell us what they were when he was interviewed on BBC Radio Scotland this morning.
“That is a measure of success. Why is it a measure of success? We had good news yesterday in the early indications about the impact of the Oxford vaccine on transmission, but what we know most about the vaccines right now is that they have a positive impact on suppressing the illness and death figures. Why does it matter that we have such a high uptake among those elderly groups? Because it is the people in those groups who are most likely to become seriously ill and die. The way we have done the vaccination is the way to save the maximum number of lives most quickly, which I think is very important, and now we are accelerating progress in the other groups.
“Jackie Baillie talked about things that the health secretary said in November. Yes, she said those things in November, but in November we did not even have an authorised vaccine for use, so we were estimating. However, we are now working on actual supplies and predictions of supplies to get the vaccine into the arms of as many people as quickly as possible. Vaccinators across the country and the team in the Government working on vaccination are doing an excellent job.”
Meanwhile, the LibDems too are furious about the speed of supply of the vaccines.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie, right speaking to a constituent, has today said that ministers must join up the dots to fix holes in the vaccination program.
Their leader, Willie Rennie, said: “To speed up the roll-out of the vaccinate we need to make getting the jab as accessible as possible. That means joining the dots and fixing the holes in the vaccination program.
“GPs had asked for a vaccination hub to be located closer to their surgeries where it would be easier for more deprived and higher risk patients to access. GPs are now very concerned that if this does not happen it will have a significant impact on uptake.
“GPs know their neighbourhoods best. The Scottish Government need to put this expertise to good use and stop dictating everything from the centre.”