Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]
Meeting date: Tuesday, May 16, 2023
Official Report 975KB pdf
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Urgent Question, Ferguson Marine, Covid-19 Vaccination Programme, Committee Announcement (Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee), Decision Time, Highly Protected Marine Areas (“The Clearances Again”)
- Time for Reflection
- Business Motion
- Topical Question Time
- Urgent Question
- Ferguson Marine
- Covid-19 Vaccination Programme
- Committee Announcement (Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee)
- Decision Time
- Highly Protected Marine Areas (“The Clearances Again”)
Covid-19 Vaccination Programme
The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-08948, in the name of Jenni Minto, on celebrating the success of the Covid-19 vaccination programme. I invite members who wish to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now or as soon as possible. I call Jenni Minto to speak to and move the motion. You have around 13 minutes, minister.15:06
I am delighted to open this debate on the Covid-19 vaccination programme. The Covid-19 pandemic brought tragedy and isolation to many individuals and families across Scotland and the rest of the world. Many of us lost people we loved and were separated from friends and family—we must never forget that human cost.
I am sure that we all remember the early days of the pandemic and our sense of fear and nervousness when, having seen the horrific news stories from China, Italy and Spain, we wondered whether that was going to happen here, too. The discovery of an effective vaccination felt very distant at that time. I am sure, too, that many of us will remember the sense of relief when, just seven months after the start of clinical trials, it was announced that United Kingdom regulators had granted authorisation for the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. Before the end of 2020, the vaccination programme had begun in earnest.
The development of that and other Covid-19 vaccines represented a remarkable achievement in scientific innovation and collaboration. The vaccines were developed using innovative approaches and were made possible by unprecedented collaboration between scientists, Governments and the private sector. The vaccines’ success in reducing the spread of the virus has been remarkable. They have provided a path out of the pandemic, which is key to economic and social recovery.
Much of what it was impossible to do three years ago we are now free to do, and the principal reason for that is the success of the vaccination programme. However, the discovery of a vaccine was just the start. Getting the vaccine into the arms of those who were at greatest risk of serious ill health and doing so as early as possible was a herculean task. Arguably, it was the most logistically challenging national endeavour since the second world war. I pay tribute to all those who played their part in that, from those who scheduled the appointments to the drivers who delivered the vaccine to vaccination centres right across Scotland and to the vaccinators themselves, who included volunteers and members of the armed forces.
Most of all, I thank all the people who came forward to be vaccinated. It is thanks to them that Scotland has consistently had higher uptake rates than those in other parts of the UK. More than 15 million vaccines have now been administered in Scotland, which is a truly staggering number.
I agree with many of the minister’s points about the success of the vaccine programme, but does she recognise that many of the Scots to whom she has just paid tribute were very frustrated in the early days of the programme? Although there was much good will in helping to get the vaccine into arms, unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles that were not a problem south of the border slowed down the vaccine roll-out in Scotland.
I am not sure that I recognise the point that Alex Cole-Hamilton is making. I certainly know from my own communities the strength of feeling and positivity that there was about the fact that the vaccine was being rolled out, as well as about the continual information that was coming from the previous First Minister, informing people of the whole process of how were going to recover from Covid-19.
Will the member give way?
No. I would like to make some progress, please.
Eleven days ago, we got the very welcome news that the World Health Organization no longer sees the Covid-19 pandemic as constituting a
“public health emergency of international concern”.
However, although it is no longer a public health emergency, we remain in a global pandemic that is a significant threat to health across the world. Vaccination—the tool that has brought us to this much-improved position—is one of the most effective ways of ensuring its continuing management.
The road from vaccine discovery to this destination has not always been smooth. There was the emergence of the omicron variant in November 2021 and the need to respond to the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to vaccinate everyone over the age of 18, not just those over the age of 40, as had been previously advised. Literally overnight, health boards had to revise their scheduling plans to include far more people and to provide a vaccination opportunity to everyone before the end of 2021.
Members might remember the boosted by the bells campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated and the reopening of many mass vaccination clinics. In the period of the omicron outbreak, at the end of 2021, an incredible 1.45 million vaccinations were delivered in the space of one month.
Will the member give way?
I would like to make progress.
I acknowledge how difficult that time was for health board staff and vaccinators. Much was asked of them, but they responded fantastically, as they always do.
I want to thank colleagues across the chamber for their support for the vaccination effort. I am sure that I was not the only one of us who was photographed getting their injection to publicise the programme.
Will the member give way?
If I can just finish this point, I will give way.
There are many subjects on which we will disagree, but the need to protect those at greatest risk of serious ill health is not one of them.
The minister has made a very long list of people who—quite rightly—deserve appreciation and praise for their part in the astonishing achievement of the vaccine roll-out, but she has not mentioned the important and strategic part that the United Kingdom Government played in procuring the vaccines in the first place. It made bold decisions, early on, to invest in research projects and bring together collaborations that resulted in the vaccines. Will she now take the opportunity to express all our appreciation to the United Kingdom Government for making that happen?
Minister, I can give you time back for both of those interventions. [Interruption.]15:13 Meeting suspended.
15:14 On resuming—
I ask the minister to resume. There is quite bit of time in hand, minister, so I can give you the time back for that interruption and for the earlier interventions from members.
I turn to the people in the public gallery first. I understand the issues that some are experiencing, and my sympathy goes to those who are affected. It is important that health boards take those issues seriously and support patients in their management of, and recovery from, their symptoms.
With regard to Stephen Kerr’s intervention, I acknowledged in my opening remarks the importance of the collaboration between scientists, Governments and communities.
The landscape today looks better than it did previously, and it is certainly far better than it was in March 2020, when our lives were changed in many fundamental ways. However, there remains a need for those who are at greatest risk of ill health to continue to take up the offer of vaccination against Covid-19.
The spring Covid-19 booster programme began on 27 March with care home vaccination, followed by appointments for those aged 75 and above, beginning on 11 April, and for those with a weakened immune system aged five and over, from 24 April. The latest data, as of 7 May, shows a national uptake of 85.4 per cent among older adult care home residents and 51.3 per cent among those aged 75 or above. Appointments for the spring booster are available in every health board, and I encourage those who are eligible and who currently do not have an appointment scheduled to get one before the offer ends, at the end of June.
Will the minister take an intervention?
If the member does not mind, I would like to continue.
After 30 June, healthy individuals aged between five and 49 will no longer be eligible for any Covid-19 vaccination. We therefore encourage anyone who has not completed their full primary course—that is, a first and second dose—to come forward to complete their course of vaccination while the opportunity exists.
As the spring booster and primary course offers draw to a close, and as the programme reduces in a proportionate and safe response to the move away from public health emergency status, the number of vaccination clinics will reduce as we vaccinate smaller numbers of the population.
Although those who are eligible for future vaccination will still be invited to attend their nearest clinic, it is possible that they will be offered different options to those that were previously offered. While that may impact on travel options, it is a consequence of the success of the vaccination programme, and it will allow staff to be deployed in other areas of health support. We also now have a more sophisticated appointment scheduling system that acknowledges that the closest vaccination centre as the crow flies might not actually be accessible—it might even be on a different island—and it will schedule accordingly.
Earlier this year, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended that children aged between six months and four years who have specific medical conditions that place them at greater risk from Covid-19 should be offered a Covid-19 vaccine. Those appointments will begin from 29 May. Parents and carers of children in that category will be contacted by NHS Scotland with details of an appointment in due course.
Looking a little further ahead, we know that there will be a Covid-19 booster programme for autumn and winter 2023-24, but we await further detail from the JCVI on which groups will be invited for vaccination.
Scenario planning with health boards to operationalise the final advice is already under way, and, given the success last winter of offering a flu vaccine at the same time as a Covid-19 booster to those eligible for both, I am sure that that option will be being considered again for next winter.
Although overall vaccine uptake figures have been impressive, we know that uptake across some groups and communities is lower than we would like it be. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, my officials have worked with health boards, third sector organisations and community groups to ensure that the Covid-19 vaccine programme reaches every community and to understand practical and attitudinal barriers to vaccination. Generally speaking, the easier it is to access vaccination, the more likely people are to take up the offer.
We put in place practical solutions such as more accessible venues, we provided funding for transport, we put information materials into a huge number of accessible formats and languages, and we provided translator services. In order to support the needs of people with learning disabilities, autism, sensory impairments and mental health conditions, we provided quieter spaces, allowed more time for appointments and offered smaller clinics, as well as providing appropriate staff training.
Health boards across Scotland are still building on the fantastic outreach work that we saw during those first pandemic phases, with partnerships across civic society to ensure that everybody was able to access vaccination without any barriers. Clinics that were held in community venues such as mosques, gurdwaras and churches, as well as mobile units that were provided by the Scottish Ambulance Service, helped people to get their vaccines in trusted and convenient locations.
The success of the vaccination programme has allowed Governments here and elsewhere to ease—
Will the minister take an intervention?
Yes, of course.
One reason why vaccinations worked so well in the Highlands was that general practitioners were allowed to deliver them, which went against the GP contract. Will the minister commend GPs for delivering vaccinations, and will she support their doing so again if we ever face a pandemic in the future?
Given that I live on an island in the NHS Highland health board area, I recognise the point that the member makes. However, it is right that local health boards make decisions in the context of the contracts that they have with GP practices.
Following on from that point, GPs in Nairn, in my constituency, very much want to continue providing vaccination services. There is a procedure to exempt them from the requirement in the GP contract, but that was taken away. Will the minister and the cabinet secretary look at that again? It would be a better solution for patients and for health, and it would be far cheaper, saving millions of pounds.
I can give you the time back, minister.
I note that the majority of GPs preferred the change in the way that vaccinations were delivered.
The success of the vaccination programme has allowed Governments here and elsewhere to ease a range of the restrictions that were introduced to halt the spread of infection and to mitigate its worst effects. International travel has largely resumed, and we are now no longer required to wear face coverings in most settings or to test for the virus. We have moved to a steady-state model that can respond to increased threat, and, although it is still possible to access testing in certain circumstances, our contingency and variant planning does not envisage a return to population-wide testing. However, that position should not be misrepresented as complacency.
The Scottish Government, in common with other Governments across the UK and elsewhere, has always had plans in place to deal with health pandemics. The many lessons that we have learned from the experience of the past three years have been applied. We continue to work with partners and key stakeholders, including Public Health Scotland and health boards, and we are working across the four nations to prepare Scotland to identify and respond to future infectious disease and pandemic threats. National preparedness arrangements include stockpiles of clinical consumables, personal protective equipment and medicines; a contract for access to pandemic influenza vaccine; and a national pandemic influenza service at four-nations level to distribute antivirals.
The staff who have been responsible for putting needles into arms and for protecting us from the virus come from across the health workforce. One innovative approach was the deployment of an extended vaccination workforce to deliver the Covid-19 and flu vaccination programmes. The vaccination workforce in Scotland includes a significant number of level 3 and level 4 healthcare support workers who received specialist training to competently and safely deliver flu and Covid-19 vaccinations. Those workers enabled us to deliver the vaccination programme at huge scale, and the programme, in turn, provided valuable training and development for healthcare support workers, improving their skill set and learning as they worked.
I received my first vax on Islay, where there was an almost ceilidh-like atmosphere in the centre at Bowmore hospital. People had not seen each other for a while, so it will not be difficult to imagine the hubbub of chat and laughter that filled the centre while healthcare staff and volunteers provided the information and reassurance that were so necessary and appreciated. We believe that retaining the ability to deploy that vaccination workforce not only is a sensible use of resources but will have significant benefit to the public health protection system.
I end with a thank you and a plea. The thank you is to every single person involved in the vaccination effort, including those who came forward to be vaccinated when they were invited to do so. The plea is for those who are invited for a Covid-19 booster in the future to come forward for that vaccination. Each of the available vaccines offers great protection against the virus, but that protection fades over time, so it is important that it is topped up for anyone who is in any of the groups at greatest risk of serious ill health from the effects of Covid-19.
That the Parliament recognises the success of the COVID-19 vaccination programme; notes that over 15 million vaccines have been administered and that tens of thousands of deaths have been prevented; agrees that vaccination has led to the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring an end to the public health emergency; recognises that COVID-19 has not gone away and offers condolences to all those who have lost a loved one during the pandemic; agrees that the success of the vaccination programme has allowed people to be kept safe, while the country lives with COVID-19; encourages those who are eligible for vaccination to come forward when called, in order to protect themselves and others, and thanks the dedicated health and social care workers who continue to deliver the vaccine.15:24
More than 17,000 Scots have died after contracting Covid-19, and I offer my condolences to all those who have lost a loved one. I hope that our debate does not stir painful memories.
I understand that, for many people, it might bring little comfort when I say that our Covid-19 vaccination programme has been a success. However, the Scottish Government needs to acknowledge that it has not succeeded in ensuring that ethnic minorities take up the vaccine. In fact, we have areas of terrible uptake.
I cannot praise enough everyone who helped to deliver the life-saving vaccines: dedicated health and social care workers, thousands of volunteers who stepped up and, of course, members of our British armed forces, which were deployed to support a national roll-out. Faced with a global pandemic, the sure way out of cycles of lockdown restrictions is via a vaccine, not the disastrous, frankly unworkable and highly ignored Scottish Covid passport scheme. That was a waste of time and money. Let us not forget the Scottish Government’s advice to cut the bottom off doors as well.
The trouble is that the normal process for vaccines takes about 10 years. Imagine waiting a decade to get the vaccine. We would be making decisions that we absolutely would not want to make. However, unprecedented co-operation, focus and funding led to the development of multiple effective and safe Covid-19 vaccines in less than a year and created a blueprint for future vaccine development. It was an extraordinary success and a brilliant example of what we can achieve when we work together.
The UK Government moved fast and early on in the pandemic. It supported research and ordered millions of vaccines. It was also criticised at the time but the decision was clearly a great one. The UK Government set up a vaccine task force in April 2020 and procured 367 million doses from seven vaccine developments with four different types of vaccines. My alma mater, Imperial College London, helped in the trials of Covid-19 vaccines. That was supported by £41 million of UK Government funding.
Margaret Keenan, a 90-year-old lady, was the first person in the UK to receive the Covid-19 jab. She said that she never considered not having it but she suffered one major side effect: she was unable to go home that night because television crews were set up in front of her door.
So began the UK-wide roll-out. In December 2021, more than 10 million vaccine doses were administered in Scotland alone. Edward Mountain and Fergus Ewing were correct to say that having some specific GPs providing vaccines was the only way to reach lots of people. To be frank, the minister’s response was confusing. Although it is okay that, in the central belt, the majority of GPs feel that the way that the roll-out was done was fine, exceptions must be made and GPs must administer the vaccine where that is appropriate.
Is it not right that one solution does not fit all and that we are at our best when we are able to use localised decision making and delivery systems to work for our individual communities?
I could not agree more. That is why, in the Highland areas, centralisation does not work but, in the central belt area, of course it does.
There is a wealth of talent on these islands and a can-do attitude. Scotland was one of the first countries in the world to begin vaccinating its population, along with the other three nations—four nations in total—of the United Kingdom, which benefited from our combined strength.
I hope that my friend Sandesh Gulhane does not mind my saying to him that, although we have proposed an amendment in his name to the motion, we should welcome the fact that the Scottish National Party Government is embracing something of scientific value. Would it not be a good idea if its attitude to science was completely overhauled in that respect and it was less anti-science? Perhaps it could embrace gene editing and the environmental benefits of clean energy sources such as nuclear power. Does he agree that being pro-science would be a good change of heart for the SNP Scottish Government?
I am not sure that the point is relevant to the debate, Sandesh Gulhane, but I can give you the time back for the intervention.
Yes, I agree with Mr Kerr. In fact, if the Scottish Government did everything that Europe does—as it says that it wants to—we would be stuck with not getting the vaccines quickly.
In my first speech in the Parliament, on 27 May 2021, I implored the Scottish Government to act to support people who were suffering from long Covid, because not everybody in Scotland was fully protected by the vaccine. Today, they still suffer from a complex mix of extreme fatigue, breathlessness, pain, heart failure, brain fog and mental health problems. I explained the bespoke set-up in England. I even created a meeting with that set-up for the Scottish Government.
We need the Scottish Government to help, to care and to fund such clinics. However, it has not done so. The SNP-Green Government published its long Covid strategy paper in September 2021, when 79,000 Scots were suffering from long Covid. Eight months of dither and delay later, in April 2022, £3 million was allocated to long Covid projects. By then, the number of long Covid sufferers had doubled. That was a year ago and long Covid pathways have still not been set up. In fact, I have heard of no Scottish Government commitment to rolling out long Covid clinics. Frankly, that is an abject failure.
Does Sandesh Gulhane remember that Humza Yousaf, when he was the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, said that he had no objection to any local health board setting up a long Covid clinic if it chose to do so?
The Scottish Government has totally failed to look after patients with long Covid. Saying that money is available does not matter. What matters is what is done—the implementation. It does not matter what the rhetoric is. We can see that in other things, such as the ferries. We need the Scottish Government to implement things that work. Maybe Jim Fairlie will reflect on that. The reality is that 175,000 people now suffer from long Covid. That is shameful.
There is also a lot of shame when it comes to the stewardship of other things that the Scottish Government has direct responsibility for. The pan-UK Covid vaccine programme has been a success. Governments worked together to get the job done. However, in devolved areas such as dental services, the story is very different. Instead of the Scottish Government patting itself on the back, it should talk about the things that matter to the people of Scotland, such as dental services.
At the conference of Scottish local dental committees in April, David McColl, chair of the Scottish dental practice committee, underscored that the current statement of dental remuneration was unfit for purpose. He said that it is a barrier to patient care and that the Scottish Government has done hee-haw to address that. Those are the types of issues that we should discuss. It is a drill-and-fill model—not one that looks after patients. We also hear the Scottish Government trying to argue about dentistry remuneration being swings and roundabouts. Frankly, those should be in the playground, not in a clinic.
We have had a reduction in the number of dentists who are working and the output that they produce. In fact, the Minister for Public Health and Women’s Health, Jenni Minto, was at the conference that I mentioned, and she announced to delegates that NHS dentistry is recovering well and in a sustained way from the pandemic. As you may imagine, there was considerable scepticism in the room, to put it politely. One dentist, Robert, responded:
“NHS dentistry is broken and your party have broken it.”
I hope that, given the current meetings with dental representatives, a model emerges whereby dentists are able to provide preventative healthcare. As a GP, I fully understand the importance of dental care when it comes to our overall health.
To conclude, although there is much to applaud in the development and delivery of our UK-wide Covid vaccination programme, we must avoid falling into the trap of making self-congratulatory statements while ignoring deeply uncomfortable truths about other key Covid-impacted devolved issues. Given that a new Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care is in place, we on the Conservative benches hope to see a marked improvement in performance, compared with that of his predecessor.
I declare my interest as a practising NHS doctor and move amendment S6M-08948.2, to insert at end:
“notes that the UK Government’s procurement strategy allowed Scotland to become one of the first countries in the world to begin vaccination, and recalls that, at the time, the Scottish Government wanted to join the EU vaccine scheme, which distributed vaccines far slower than the UK scheme.”
Thank you, Dr Gulhane. Although I anticipate that the debate will tend to stray into other areas, I encourage members in their contributions to stick as broadly as possible to the text of the motion.15:34
Before I begin, I put on record my party’s gratitude to everyone who played any role at all in the long and on-going fight against Covid and, in particular, those front-line health and care workers who risked their lives and the welfare of their families to keep as many of us as safe as possible.
That, of course, includes those who worked for unending hours to push through the vaccination programme that has successfully brought us to a point where we can proudly say that we can begin to see an end to lives being lost from that terrible disease. Those vaccinators and everyone involved in the significant effort that went along with it really are modern-day heroes and we owe it to them to say so as much as we can.
I hope that, in time, Scotland will properly commemorate the thousands of people who risked so much to help us, taking into account the fact that many of them still work in our NHS and social care sector and that they currently feel that they are underpaid and undervalued by Governments. Let us show true gratitude and address that disparity, too, during this session of Parliament.
Let me return to the wider fight against Covid-19. No one can doubt that Governments across the world were wholly unprepared for a pandemic as far reaching and lethal as Covid-19, but it is our responsibility to learn from it to best prepare ourselves for the pandemics to come, as well as to properly manage the continuing damage and potential threat from new Covid strains and long Covid.
That preparation demands that we are honest about the failures that happened. Many people could not get a vaccination appointment anywhere near where they lived, and we have heard of children being given the wrong dosage altogether. Of course, the public expect that in such an unprecedented event, there will be errors, but it is clear that many of those things were avoidable with better planning. It is important that the Government reflects on those matters. I am glad that, since that time, there seems to have been an effort to rectify some of the issues and look at some of the problems.
Despite that, we are currently seeing a concerning number of over-75s failing to get their spring booster jab and a general lack of understanding among the population about where the vaccination programme will go next. Indeed, throughout the vaccination process, there were particular groups that had a much lower uptake of the vaccine than others. Properly understanding the economic, social and cultural reasons behind that is key to ensuring that we get it right immediately in the future. However, I must press the point that, in order to address the issues for good, they have to be recognised as failings first, not swept under the carpet. We need to be honest about what happened and what is happening.
Would the member agree that one of the deep sadnesses about the situation is that there does not appear to have been enough retrospective view of what happened during those early days of Covid—the early days of the vaccination programme—to drive what we do going forward, and that that is a lost opportunity?
I thank my colleague for that intervention. That is absolutely part of the point that I am making. We must not sweep things under the carpet and we must be honest.
Perhaps larger than all of that, however, is the continuing failure to properly address the situation faced by those who are suffering from long Covid. We believe that there are as many as 172,000 people across Scotland suffering from that debilitating condition, with a significant number unable to work because of it. Many of those people continue to report that they are victims of a postcode lottery for treatment and medication—a completely unacceptable situation for anyone in a country as wealthy as ours. We also know that this Government has not matched the support that has been provided in England and Wales to those who are suffering from the condition—a fact that I find incredible and one that should be more widely known and spoken about.
To avoid errors like that, we must properly process and understand the findings of the Covid inquiry when they arrive, not cower away. When necessary action requires to be taken, we must address it. We must prepare for a future in which a pandemic could plausibly happen again. In order to do that, my party is calling on the Scottish Government to meet people who are suffering from long Covid and experts in the field to discuss the long-term funding that is needed to treat the condition and to ensure that the most vulnerable people in society can access antiviral medications and prophylaxis.
In the long term, our Government must work cohesively with scientists, researchers, stakeholders and Governments across the world to utilise the most up-to-date and cutting-edge discoveries in immunology, epidemiology and wider healthcare. Scotland should be at the forefront of that charge. With its world-leading academic institutions and pharmaceutical research, it can play that role decisively. We should not shy away from celebrating the success of industry and workers across the UK and in Scotland when doing so. After all, investment is key to all of this.
As we know, co-operation across the United Kingdom was exemplary during the pandemic. It acted as a fine testament to what can be achieved when Governments work together sensibly and in the best interests of the many. For many people across Scotland, there was a great sense of solidarity and collective fortitude as the pandemic rolled out from knowing that families in Aberdeen and Southampton alike were going through such an awful situation and, sadly, having first-hand experience of losing loved ones, while fighting it together on a shared footing. I know that that gave me strength during the pandemic and, if it ever happens again, I feel confident that, as the United Kingdom, we are ready to tackle it once more while thinking of others across the nation.
In conclusion, the development and the delivery of vaccines were the jewels in the crown of Scotland’s efforts to fight Covid. We can only be thankful that so many hard-working and committed individuals took up the fight without fear and got the job done. I dread to think where we would have been without them.
I move amendment S6M-08948.1, to insert at end:
“; recognises the importance of the cooperation and pooling of resources by the four nations in the procurement and roll-out of vaccines; accepts that lessons must be learned from the COVID-19 vaccination programme, with concerning evidence of lower vaccine uptake in minority ethnic groups, those living in the most deprived areas, younger people and pregnant women; considers that the Scottish Government’s support for those with long COVID and those formerly on the Highest Risk List is inadequate, and calls on the Scottish Government to meet with people with long COVID and experts to discuss the long-term funding needed to treat this condition, and ensure that the most vulnerable in society can access antiviral medicines and prophylaxis.”15:41
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in such an important debate, and I thank Jenni Minto for securing it. I am not sure that we have had an exchange such as this previously, so I welcome her to her position.
As we have heard several times this afternoon, the Covid pandemic is the biggest challenge that we in the Parliament have faced collectively as well as for those who were making decisions around the world. Overnight, the inconceivable became the everyday. In the face of an unknown and deadly disease, we were separated from our loved ones and confined to our homes.
The virus claimed the lives of thousands of people in Scotland alone. They were our friends, family and loved ones. Most of us in this chamber will never begin to know how difficult it was to be on the front line of that national emergency. Our healthcare workers provided the life-saving services that held our country together. We owe them a debt that we will never fully repay.
It is right that we highlight and celebrate the fact that the availability of Covid vaccines may have prevented thousands of deaths. Although we should mark that achievement, we must recognise that there were serious issues with the roll-out in Scotland. I say that not for political reasons but for the lessons that we must learn for the likely event that we in this chamber or the generations that follow us face another pandemic. The people who administered vaccinations were all too often let down by a lack of clarity from the Government. Let us not forget that we had the slowest vaccination roll-out of the four UK nations or that the Scottish Government was often chaotic in its approach to the vaccine’s dissemination. The latter issue led to delays in getting vaccines to the people who needed them the most, which might have cost lives.
I intervened on the minister to ask about the frustration that was felt by healthcare professionals. I remember that a general practitioner who lives in my constituency and has a busy practice in Fife said that, in a flu season, they can shift vaccines into the arms of 90 patients a day. Imagine their frustration when they were told by the organising hub that they were allowed to administer a maximum of nine Covid-19 vaccinations per day. There was no real reason for that because we had the vaccine stockpiles. In England, they trusted their GPs—knowing that they deal with the flu season every year—to book halls and get the jabs into arms.
There was a severe lack of transparency, with little clarity about how many vaccines had been ordered, when they would be delivered and who would be vaccinated first. The Government did not do enough to make vaccination accessible to those who were unable to get it through traditional channels, nor did it provide the necessary information to give the public full confidence in the vaccines’ safety, turning instead to the counterproductive and illiberal shambles of the vaccine passports, the back of which we saw through the help of Liberal Democrat opposition.
Although we celebrate the breakthrough that the vaccines represented and we should recognise the huge part that they played in saving lives and getting us out of the crisis in which we found ourselves, let us not pat ourselves on the back. Let us learn lessons for pandemics to come.
We would be forgiven for thinking that the Scottish ministers discovered the drugs. The credit belongs to the scientists who worked day in and day out to deliver the treatments in record-breaking time.
Part of the reason why the UK made such great strides with the AstraZeneca programme was our world-class universities, the labs that they host and the expertise that they nurture. That highlights the danger of the Government’s £20 million cuts to universities’ budgets this year, amid warnings from the sector of a managed decline. Instead of hamstringing our universities, we should reward them with everything that they need to carry out the necessary research to get ahead of the next pandemic. Scottish universities have to play a vital part in that.
As an internationalist, I believe that our efforts with vaccine research should benefit not just people on these shores but people around the world. What happened to the promises of the richer countries to help to vaccinate the rest of the world? That help was all too often lacking at the height of the pandemic. Going forward, our strategy must be to include those in need around the world, particularly in developing countries. We have the capacity to do so, if only we can find the will.
Let us acknowledge that Covid has not gone away. Sandesh Gulhane and others have mentioned that. No one knows that more keenly than the 175,000 people in Scotland who are currently battling long Covid, many of whom are children. The Scottish Liberal Democrats, with others, have consistently pressed for the Scottish Government to deliver desperately needed support to people who are suffering from an often debilitating and life-changing condition.
During his leadership bid, Humza Yousaf said that he would look to increase the spending for long Covid. Those who are suffering are watching, and they are waiting.
The threat that long Covid still poses is one reason why we need to ensure that anyone who wants a vaccination can get one as soon as they need it and wherever they are, and that those who are eligible are able to access a booster jab.
Over the past few months, I have been contacted by many elderly constituents who have been distressed because they have been asked to travel across the city to receive the dose that they are eligible for. One constituent who is physically and mentally fragile was asked to travel 10 miles rather than receive her dose at home, which she would usually do with the flu vaccine. People who care for or live with vulnerable relatives are unable to get the vaccination when they ask for it because they do not fit the age profile.
That is why the Liberal Democrats want booster jabs to be available at accessible places, such as pharmacies, as the flu jab is. We also want the Government to learn from the experience of the pandemic and ensure that there is a dedicated vaccination workforce in place to help with future vaccination campaigns. During the pandemic, clinical staff were taken away from other parts of the service to administer vaccinations, which had a knock-on effect on waiting times and other services. A dedicated vaccination workforce would help to ensure that we can respond quickly and effectively to future emergency vaccination programmes.
I am aware of my time, Deputy Presiding Officer.
Finally, as uncomfortable as this might be, it is vital that we acknowledge that we fell well short during the pandemic and that we listen to those who are feeling let down. Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.15:48
I am speaking today in a personal capacity rather than as the convener of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee.
I welcome Jenni Minto to her new role as the Minister for Public Health and Women’s Health and thank her for this debate, in which the Parliament is acknowledging many people and organisations in Scotland that have contributed to the incredible effort in rolling out the Covid vaccination programme. The minister mentioned that in her opening remarks.
We all have personal memories of that time. Unfortunately for me, the event that sticks out was the passing of my mother. Instead of there being a normal funeral, we were restricted to very few who could attend the ceremony, and we then went home. We all recognise that lack of opportunity to grieve together in the normal human way and to share the most difficult of human experiences and the prolonged effects that such losses have. Those moments are seared in the minds of us all. However, we must remember why we accepted those sacrifices. We collectively took responsible decisions in difficult times to help the NHS, the Scottish Government, armed forces personnel, local authority colleagues and third sector partners to mobilise and roll out the vaccine.
In my Perthshire South and Kinross-shire constituency, fantastic groups such as Letham4All showed us the best, by ensuring through the efforts that they put in that people who were in need of any manner of supply and support received day-to-day support. I give huge credit to those community heroes, who did not do it for profit but were motivated by making a difference and helping people when they needed it the most. I am sure that colleagues from across the parties can think of examples in their constituencies, too.
Our ability to get back to as close to normal as possible is undoubtedly because the vaccine is saving lives and helping those who get infected to be less affected. Studies by the University of Edinburgh show us that the likelihood of serious illness and death is reduced by 90 per cent for those who are vaccinated compared with the unvaccinated population.
Nevertheless, we still face challenges. There are perhaps questions to be asked about how we ensure against vaccine fatigue for people who still need the vaccine and, conversely, about how people can access a vaccine if they are unable to purchase one and are not in the eligible categories. People might want a booster for reasons such as travel or for their own piece of mind, and it must be available to them. We must ensure that we maintain vaccination uptake and access for people who might require it.
My mind harks back to when I was growing up and I heard the famous quote of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose brutal assessment was that
“there’s no such thing as society”.
Well, if we have not just witnessed the very best of society, I do not know what we have just seen.
It is correct to thank the Scottish Government, who steered us through the worst of the crisis, for its long hours and effort. I do not think that anyone envied the brutal, round-the-clock burden that the former First Minister bore with such determination to do the absolute best to deliver the calm, reassuring message that the Scottish Government was doing everything that it could to guide us through the crisis. She was there at a time when people needed to hear a reassuring message, and she did it in a way that reflected the mood and the moment—she will forever deserve huge credit for doing that.
Conversely, the behaviour of Boris Johnson and certain members of his Government helped to give rise to—and was subsequently proven to be the continuing source of—the public feeling of one rule for them and another for us. I note with immense disappointment that the Tory amendment implies that Scotland is the only country in the world that would not be able to navigate its way through a genuine international crisis without the guiding hand and paternity of a Westminster Government. Although I give credit to that Government for buying up the vaccine, its behaviour at that time undermined the messaging that was needed to hold the UK’s collective responsibility together.
What Scotland did not and does not need is a UK Government to manage this for us. This is just what normal, independent countries did around the globe. I dare say that we will continue to tackle this and other challenges in a way that reflects the needs of the people of Scotland.
Jim Fairlie has just told the chamber that we do not need the UK Government to manage this for us. General practitioners in my community did not need the Scottish Government to manage their vaccination roll-out either, but, instead, the Government got in the way and slowed the roll-out down. What does he have to say to that?
I would say that there are a lot of lessons to be learned right across the country. However, to tell people that Scotland should not be an independent country on the basis that we needed a vaccine is ridiculous.
The Labour amendment has various issues in it, some of which I agree with, particularly the comments on the messaging around reaching minority ethnic groups, those living in the most deprived areas, younger people and pregnant women. It should be an on-going task of the Scottish Government to make sure that Covid-19 vaccination, and any vaccination, is properly taken up.
Does the member agree with my colleague, Dr Gulhane, who said that we have far more to do in attacking the approach to those areas with minority communities to ensure that we get the same vaccination uptake that we saw in wider Scotland?
Yes, I made that point.
We are all aware that tens of thousands of Scots are still suffering the effects of what is known as long Covid. Obviously, it is a new phenomenon and the research to get to the bottom of it is on-going.
I was a member of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee when the inquiry into long Covid was launched, and I now convene that committee. I will share with the Parliament that we have concluded our inquiry and have reported to the Scottish Government. Our report is focused on three key themes: awareness and recognition; therapy and rehabilitation; and study and research. We heard many harrowing things during our inquiry and learned about the complex nature of symptoms from people who are living with long Covid and from a range of health professionals and academics. The report makes several clear and considered recommendations, and I look forward to the response from the Scottish Government.15:54
I appreciate the opportunity to speak in the debate at a time when the World Health Organization has just downgraded the Covid-19 virus. Covid has so dominated our lives over the past few years that it is difficult to recognise what life was like before the pandemic.
I find it extraordinary to think about the lengths that the public were prepared to go to in order to comply with Covid restrictions. At one point, we were allowed out of our houses for only one hour a day, to take some exercise. I still cannot quite get my head around that. The only person whom I would see in a day was my youngest daughter, when I picked her up and we went to do a bit of running in the park for an hour. My youngest grandson was born during Covid. He lives only 40 minutes from me, but I did not see him for the first six months of his life.
When I think through those dark times, I smile about how resilient we humans can be, and how we always find a way. My old athletics buddies formed a Friday evening virtual pub night at which we all got together online for an hour for a beer and a chat. I always thought that it was interesting that the more we chatted, the better we used to be.
The UK Government produced a package of financial support that was unheard of, which kept businesses afloat so that we had an economy to return to, and for once the Scottish Parliament came together when called on to support Government decisions. The four devolved nations put aside constitutional differences—for a while at least—and recognised that a joint and unified approach to tackling Covid-19 would give us the best chance of protecting citizens across the United Kingdom.
All the while, we listened to the talk of developing a vaccine, which was the only way out of the global emergency. We hoped and prayed for that kind of end to the nightmare. I will be honest, Deputy Presiding Officer—I was sceptical about whether we would be able to develop a vaccine in the timescales that were being cited. That was before we had even considered how we would produce it, or the numbers of people that would be required to distribute and administer it. I was, in all honesty, preparing to dig in for a while longer, or to have to step back to some kind of normality with Covid still being a major threat, because the lack of economic activity could not be supported by the country for any longer.
However, as my colleague Dr Sandesh Gulhane eloquently detailed, it took less than a year to develop and produce a safe and effective vaccine that was procured in the UK and distributed across the four nations at a pace that has never been seen before. If we set that against the usual 10 years timescale that is the norm for developing, testing and deploying a vaccine, the scale of the achievement comes into sharp focus.
The previous speaker, Mr Fairlie, characterised Sandesh Gulhane’s amendment somewhat strangely. He said that the amendment says that Scotland could not manage without the UK. In fact, it says that because the two Governments worked together—the UK Government did what it did and the Scottish Government and the Scottish people did what they did—we had a successful roll-out. Does Brian Whittle agree that Jim Fairlie repeatedly lets himself down by seeing every issue that comes before members as being a matter of constitutional politics, when clearly that is not the case?
I can give you the time back.
Stephen Kerr is right. It was the ability of our four devolved nations to pool our resources, work collaboratively and set aside our differences that enabled Scotland, along with the rest of the United Kingdom, to have one of the most rapid and comprehensive vaccine programmes in the world. It saved thousands of lives across our small island and allowed normality to come back into our lives much more quickly than we could have imagined.
If ever there was an example of why the union is so important and unique to all the countries in the UK, it must be the way in which we were able to tackle such a disaster together.
I echo Brian Whittle’s sentiments about the four nations of the union. To tread on slightly more dangerous ground, is that also a very good example of why politicians should perhaps listen to scientists’ input and advice on matters in which the scientists are the experts?
We should listen to scientists. It was interesting that during Covid we evolved the science as we went. Politicians then looked back to what some scientists had said and at some of the actions that politicians had taken and they beat each other with big sticks; they did not recognise that we were living in unprecedented times and the science was evolving on a day-to-day basis.
Covid has not gone away, though, and we live with it daily. It has left us with another set of issues, a couple of which I will touch on in the time that I have remaining.
Last Friday, I again met the chief executive of NHS Ayrshire and Arran. The issues that we discussed have stuck with me, so I want to raise them in the chamber today. First, the way in which we discuss our healthcare professionals is having an impact on retention and recruitment. Quite rightly, we always hold them in high regard, and we recognise their incredible efforts during the Covid pandemic. They were on the front line day in, day out, under the most extreme pressures, while keeping us safe. However, we then always seem to go on to talk about them as being underpaid, undervalued and burning out. It is little wonder, then, that we have a retention and recruitment problem.
About a decade ago, my daughter applied for place on a midwifery course at university. There were 44 places and more than 400 applicants for them, so universities could choose. Perhaps this would be a good time for me to declare an interest, in that my daughter now works in a neonatal unit in the Scottish NHS.
Last week, the chief executive of NHS Ayrshire and Arran highlighted to me that, for the first time, it has had to go through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service clearance process to fill its vacancies. On top of that, the drop-out rate on such courses is appallingly high: in some cases it is as high as 60 per cent. Something is therefore going wrong with the Scottish Government’s retention and recruitment process, and that must be addressed. Perhaps speaking about NHS staff being part of a caring solution rather than using massively negative descriptions of their roles would be a start. The Scottish Parliament has a responsibility on that. Thousands of places remain unfilled.
Finally, during my time on the Parliament’s Health and Sport Committee in session 5, and now in the work of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, there have always been calls for healthcare professionals to be trained in this or that condition—ME, Lyme disease or Huntington’s disease, for example. Most recently, it has been about recognising long Covid. However, Covid robbed our medical professionals of opportunities for continuing professional development, in respect of which they have yet to recover. Such opportunities are crucial for the benefit of public health and to training and retention of our healthcare professionals, who for so long have had to focus on a single issue. We must work to reintroduce that crucial element to their roles. As the Scottish Government is so fond of saying, there is still work to be done.16:02
I, too, offer my condolences to people who lost family, friends and neighbours because of Covid, and I recognise the situation of people who are still suffering from long Covid. For them all, none of this is over and Covid is still very much with us. A colleague whom I met at the weekend has just come down with it. I, myself, evaded the virus until late last year.
I also record my thanks to everyone who has been involved in delivery of health services and in caring settings. We might not be clapping and rattling pot lids at 8 pm any more, but I have not forgotten—and never will forget—the debt that our society owes them and Governments across the globe for their joint efforts to combat the virus. I also record the enormous commitment of the former First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, whose daily updates were valued by many people, whether they supported her Government or not.
However, I must take Sandesh Gulhane and other members to task over what they presented as the purer-than-pure role of the UK Government during the Covid pandemic. What about Randox Laboratories, for example? Owen Paterson MP, who is a former Cabinet minister, received £500,000 to advise Randox, which—strangely—was awarded, without competition, a £137 million contract for Covid-19 testing. That contract was later renewed despite 750,000 Covid tests having to be recalled because of safety concerns.
What, too, of the contracts for personal protective equipment that went to the Tories’ pals on the VIP fast-track list, who had no experience of PPE, and what of the some £4 billion-worth of unusable PPE that was bought in the first year and had to be incinerated?
Who can forget the scandal in which a company that was associated with Michelle Mone, who had previously been elevated to the House of Lords, was awarded a PPE contract worth more than £100 million, which shocked even Rishi Sunak? Let us put some context around how the UK Government acted during the pandemic.
I turn to the vaccines, which have been our saviours. As other members have said, we were told that developing and testing vaccines for application would take a decade at the very least, as had been the case in the past. It took a global pandemic for Governments, together with the scientific community, to have Covid vaccines developed in a highly accelerated fashion. That shows that it can be done and, perhaps, could be done in other areas of medicine. Where there is a will there is a way.
As others have said, that underlined how much we should thank our scientific communities. It is not breaking news that they collaborate on research. My son is a research scientist—although not in the field that we are debating—and he collaborates internationally. I give those communities my gratitude.
I am in the over-75 age group, so I benefit from the vaccine programme. Just yesterday, when I also had the pneumococcal vaccine, I received my sixth Covid vaccination. My previous Covid vaccinations were accompanied by shingles and flu vaccines—I have arms like a colander. Only with the first vaccination did I have a reaction, which was to shiver violently for hours. That was then, and I have had no reaction since. I say to others—especially people in my age group, and people who are not in my age group who are frightened of vaccines—please get vaccinated and, like me, take the other vaccines that are on offer, if they are suitable.
Delivery is much improved. In the early days, I found myself in a long queue with a two-hour delay before people were being taken in, so I left and came back on another date. Those days are gone; yesterday, I went straight through.
I agree with the minister that there is more adaptability applied to what constitutes a convenient place for vaccinations. However, my vaccination yesterday was at Ocean Terminal, where signage was poor and there was quite a long walk to the facility. That was fine for me, but it proved to be a challenge for some people with mobility issues. Also, locating the site became a bit of a mystery tour for me and others. Perhaps the NHS could ensure that the authorities review signage and accessibility.
As for the future, I note that the World Health Organization has downgraded Covid so that it is no longer a global emergency, although I believe that some nations are working on an international protocol to prepare for an outbreak—I hope that one does not occur—in autumn and winter. Given that health is a devolved issue, has the Scottish Government been engaging with the UK Government, along with the other UK nations, on that protocol?
When I was isolated at home for 12 weeks, I wrote a Covid diary—partly as therapy, but also to remind me of what it was like for me and others and to remind me to be grateful that, somehow, we collectively worked our way through it. One day, my grandchildren might find it interesting.16:07
I, too, welcome the minister to her place. It is a pleasure to follow Christine Grahame, even with her slight colander arms from the vaccinations that she has received. Her message about reaching out to people to have the Covid vaccination and the other vaccinations that are available is a very important one. The Government and individual members have a responsibility, and our communities should make a commitment, to support people to receive the on-going vaccinations.
Covid-19 vaccination was a game changer that has allowed us to return to a certain normality and to learn to live with the virus. As others have done, I thank all who have been involved in that. There are far too many of them to single out individuals, but every one of those people is a hero. That army of vaccinators deserves our utmost thanks for getting the vaccine into millions of arms.
The manufacture, procurement and roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines is one of the great successes of our four nations working together, but let us be under no illusion about that, because the roll-out was far from perfect—that goes from the countless stories of people having to travel miles for a vaccination appointment to the children who were given the wrong dosage. Lessons must be learned.
To echo the point that I made in my intervention, it is a shame that the lessons that should have been learned do not appear to have been learned. I am thinking, in particular, of the dynamic response that allowed our GPs to be involved, of how we should look to the role of our pharmacies and of how we should be encouraged to trust areas to solve problems in a way that works for them.
Does the member agree that it is crucial that, when we look back at and investigate how we responded to Covid, we are as open and honest as we can possibly be, and that we ensure that there is no retribution, so that we can have that honesty?
Brian Whittle is right. When the inquiry starts—I urge that it starts as soon as possible—and we look back, it cannot be about seeking retribution. It must be an inquiry about learning, and one that is a fitting tribute to those who, sadly, died during the pandemic, those who are still living with long Covid and those who are still feeling trapped because they are unable to leave their house as a result of being immunosuppressed.
However, it is also right to say that we do not have to wait until that inquiry has been completed to learn from the problems and to implement some of the solutions that we have found. That includes reaching out to those groups who had low rates of vaccination and who struggled to accept the vaccine. That can happen now.
Does the member accept that, however many lessons we learn or however much we prepare, if we have to vaccinate around 5 million people several times, mistakes will happen, people will have to queue and letters will go to the wrong address?
I will give you the time back for both interventions, Mr Whitfield.
I am very grateful, Deputy Presiding Officer.
Yes, the reality of any roll-out is that errors will be made and there will be mistakes. However, we must learn from those so that they are not repeated time and time again. I can think of a case that is close to my heart in which a young person attended for a vaccination but was told that he could not have it because he was supposed to have it at school, which was contrary to the advice that he had been given.
Empowering people in relation to the delivery of the vaccination programme and empowering health professionals in an area could have been done with relative ease if the individuals who were making those decisions had confidence that they would be supported because that was medically the right decision to make.
One of the issues that came up in the Highlands is that none of the services was included in the initial vaccination programme, so people in the services were completely excluded from it.
Does the member believe that local GPs’ contact with patients who had not gone to vaccination centres led to our achieving a 98 per cent rate with the first round of vaccinations? We never managed to achieve such a high rate again.
The member is right. I think that he also understands my position that we need to empower people to carry out community-based and community-focused solutions to get the greatest success.
Not just on Covid but on so many matters, the concept that a single solution can solve all the problems everywhere has proven to be incorrect time and time again. Instead, we need to empower and trust our communities. We need to trust those people who are taking the medical decisions.
Will the member give way?
I am grateful to Martin Whitfield for being so generous with his time. Does the member agree that the upshot of our experiences of the past couple of years should be that we move quickly to upgrade our health service from an analogue system to a digital-based system in which all parts of the NHS work together, speak to one another and share information systems?
I will be equally generous, Mr Whitfield—you can have all that time back.
I am very thankful, Deputy Presiding Officer. I am also thankful for that intervention, because it speaks to future needs and the NHS that we must have to support our communities and our people. Part of that must involve digitalisation and the ability to transfer information.
I want to highlight some of the high-risk groups. Although life has returned to a new normal for some people, that is not the case for the immunocompromised or the 180,000 people who are still on the shielding list. Far too many patients still live in fear and are being deprived of transformative antiviral medication by the SNP Government. Only a tiny fraction of those who are shielding are eligible for antiviral medication. Even those who are eligible face a real challenge in terms of time and sometimes cost in getting access to the drugs. I am referring, of course, to Evusheld, which is for pre-exposure prophylaxis. That means that it can be taken to prevent Covid-19, before there is a risk of acquiring an infection.
I would like the minister to set out the Government’s intentions regarding those people who still find themselves trapped at home, frequently alone, who are desperate to find a way of returning to the normality that some members have referenced. Those people still cannot share that normality with us.
It is right to mention long Covid, as a number of members have done already. It is estimated that 172,000 Scots are living with long Covid. Concerns have been raised that that group has been forgotten. Those concerns have been raised in questions, debates and statements. It is the Scottish Government’s responsibility to offer those 172,000 Scots a map to get them out of their situation.
It is right that we celebrate the vaccine. All too often, it has felt as though medical science is something that goes on behind the scenes that we do not fully understand or—dare I suggest?—value. However, the Covid vaccine has changed that, and we need to remember that change of view. Science needs to be part of the Government’s thinking, and the role of our universities is crucial.
The last thing that we want to do is suggest that Covid is over, because it is not—far from it. Health inequalities continue to persist across Scotland, so we need to redouble our efforts to drive them down.16:16
I am very happy to take part in today’s debate, having been on the COVID-19 Committee before the 2021 elections and the COVID-19 Recovery Committee since then. In fact, the previous committee was kept in place during the election period in case something new arose and needed to be dealt with urgently.
When the Covid pandemic got going, many of us assumed that it would take a very long time to develop vaccines, so, as others have said, we owe a huge debt to the medics, the scientists and others who worked together incredibly effectively to produce the vaccines so quickly. Just the other week, as the committee considered preparedness for a future pandemic, we heard that the hope is that, in the future, vaccines could be produced in 100 days, obviously with testing time on top of that.
The latest figure that I heard was that more than 20 million lives had been saved worldwide by the vaccines, and I am sure that the figure will be much higher by now. On top of that, many others were protected from serious illness.
It is hard to have this debate without considering some of the misinformation and disinformation that was around during the pandemic and continues today. One such issue related to whether the vaccines would or would not prevent transmission. I well remember Jason Leitch speaking to the committee on that subject. He made the simple and straightforward point that, if fewer people had Covid, logically, fewer people would pass it on and fewer people would catch it, so it was true that vaccination reduced transmission.
There are always things that, when we look back, we might have done differently if we had the chance again, but we should remember that Governments and health services were having to make multiple decisions every day. On the whole, I think that the vaccination programme went well. However, at the same time, some constituents were sent too far away to get their jag or did not get notification of their appointment, and there were sometimes lengthy queues when people turned up.
The committee spent a fair bit of time considering uptake of vaccination among different age groups and communities. Generally speaking, uptake among older people was very high, but it reduced as we moved into younger age groups, and it was also lower in poorer areas. As of 2 April, 90 per cent of older adults in care homes had had their winter booster, whereas the figure for front-line health and social care workers was only 48 per cent. There were also geographical differences. NHS Orkney reported that 80 per cent had received their booster, whereas the figure for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde was only 69 per cent.
Among ethnic minority communities, fewer people took the jags. Various explanations have been given for that. For example, they might distrust the Government in the country of their background, from where some people would get their health information. I know that attempts were made to tackle that reticence. Faith and other minority ethnic leaders came out strongly to encourage their communities to go ahead and get their jags. BEMIS also worked with ethnic minorities to promote uptake. Having one of the Glasgow centres in the central mosque was a good move and sent out a strong signal—I had one of my jags there.
However, more negatively, a lot of misinformation and disinformation have been spread on social media and elsewhere. Some people say that Covid never existed at all, while others exaggerate the level of vaccine injuries—I continue to see a fair amount of that, especially on Twitter. Sadly, some people have a serious reaction to the vaccine, perhaps because of underlying health conditions, and we must do all that we can to support them. However, the vast majority of people have a sore arm and might have flu-like symptoms for 24 hours but are completely fine after that. For example, anaphylaxis after vaccination is rare, at approximately five cases per million doses, while myocarditis seems to have been highest after two doses, with between 52 and 106 cases per million among younger males. However, those cases varied in their seriousness. One of my staff was taken to hospital by ambulance with that but has been right as rain ever since.
Going forward, we want to encourage all those who are eligible to continue to take up the chance of boosters, possibly annually. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde is currently promoting the spring booster, which is for those who are over 75 or those with a weakened immune system. At one stage, teachers and other front-line workers wanted to get vaccines earlier, because they were in contact with so many people every day. However, it was decided to focus on age, with the addition of particularly vulnerable groups.
Obesity has long been considered a risk factor, too. I was interested to see in The Herald on Friday a report on a study on that topic involving Aziz Sheikh of the University of Edinburgh. It seems that vaccines are less effective on overweight patients, such as people with a body mass index of more than 40—that is, those who are morbidly obese—who were 76 per cent more likely to get severe symptoms.
Another issue going forward is the advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. That advice was given to all the nations of the UK, and we all tended to follow it faithfully. That had the advantage of consistency, including for the media, but it is worth looking at the issue for next time round. For example, we could consider whether obese people could be supported more to get vaccines, if that is desirable.
Another issue is that of making vaccines available all round the world. There were some successes in that regard, and I know that, among leading politicians and professionals such as Jason Leitch, there was a strong commitment to international fairness. However, I think that the sense persisted that the richer countries were grabbing what they needed first while developing nations were allowed the leftovers.
Overall, however, the vaccination programme went better than many of us expected. Once again, we should give our grateful thanks to those who developed, produced and distributed these marvellous jags.16:22
I, too, welcome this important debate. As colleagues have done, I start by expressing my condolences to all those who lost loved ones as a result of the pandemic. The debate is important for a number of reasons, but, initially, it gives us the opportunity to remember those who were affected and to recognise those who continue to be affected by and suffer from long Covid. The debate gives us an opportunity to reflect collectively on what more we can do to support them. I know that colleagues are looking at those issues through various avenues in the Parliament.
My first experience of a pandemic was in 2003, during the SARS—severe acute respiratory syndrome—pandemic, when I was teaching conversational English in China. I had hoped that it would be my last such experience. When the Covid-19 pandemic began, in the early months of 2020, there was a sense of fear and anxiety about what it could become, but little did we know in the early weeks how quickly the situation would move on. Within days, we were suddenly in a lockdown scenario. At that point, I remember hearing commentary from politicians and others asking whether there would be a vaccine, as that was unclear. Then, through a combination of global collaboration, science and Government administration, by the end of 2020, we got to a place where the first shots of this remarkable discovery were administered and we began the fightback against this awful disease.
In Edinburgh, the way in which NHS Lothian, working with central Government, the UK Government and local government, rolled out the vaccine was imperfect but remarkable. I pay tribute to not just all the volunteers and front-line staff to whom members have made reference, but the administrative staff, who sometimes perhaps do not get as much praise and attention. Their organisation and the way that those blue envelopes were cascaded out and fell through our letterboxes as a symbol of hope made such an important contribution to the national mission and the achievement of administering the vaccines.
As others have done, I want to say thank you to those who took the vaccine, and I continue to urge those who are eligible to take their vaccines. As Martin Whitfield made reference to, we need to bear in mind those who have had the vaccine but still feel vulnerable. That is an important consideration, and campaigns are being undertaken to remind us of it and encourage us to think carefully about how we support those individuals.
On those who did not take the vaccine, John Mason rightly pointed out the challenges with regard to misinformation and social media. I would be interested to know how the Government is listening to those who did not take the vaccine about why they did not. The reasoning often seems irrational to many of those who did take it, but we will do better in persuading those people in future scenarios if we understand the consideration that people gave to the matter and work to encourage them to take the vaccine. It was the collective acceptance of and enthusiasm for the vaccine that gained us the freedom from the virus that we are enjoying now.
Of course, the virus is still around, which is why we need to continue to encourage people to take the vaccine. However, the difference between the scenario that we are in now and the scenario in 2020 and 2021 is almost night and day.
One of the reasons why people struggled to take the vaccine is geography, as others have expressed. For example, in the initial phases of the roll-out, people in Edinburgh had to go west of Edinburgh, to the Royal Highland Centre, to get their vaccines—I had two there. In time, NHS Lothian managed to gain other venues. A very important one for my constituents that NHS Lothian and the health and social care partnership managed to secure was Ocean Terminal.
I take the fair criticism from another member that the signage might need to be improved, but I can tell members that the creation of a vaccination centre in Ocean Terminal made a massive difference for my constituents in Edinburgh Northern and Leith. It is accessible by bus routes, and a tram route that goes there is about to open, so I take this opportunity to ask the minister to consider this suggestion. That location has been excellent as a vaccination centre. My constituency is experiencing some of the most rapid population growth in the whole of the country. The NHS Scotland resource allocation committee formula that funds NHS spending is not getting ahead of population growth in Edinburgh. Ocean Terminal would be an excellent site for a GP practice if we could obtain the capital and resourcing for it, in order to get ahead of population growth in Edinburgh Northern and Leith.
I welcome Ocean Terminal’s use as a vaccination centre, and I want to see it continue to deliver well for those who are getting the vaccine. I encourage people to get their vaccines and to get them at Ocean Terminal if they are one of my constituents and that is where they are allocated to. Thereafter, I would urge the Government to seriously consider creating a GP practice at Ocean Terminal, because it would make an important difference to my constituents, and, more widely, it would make an important difference as we continue to provide healthcare for people in the times ahead.16:29
I am pleased to have the chance to speak in the debate and highlight the fantastic work that the UK Government did to make the Covid-19 vaccination programme such a success. Thanks to the UK Government, we were one of the first nations in the world to be vaccinating people. We vaccinated millions of Scots, protecting all of us from coronavirus. Meanwhile, Sturgeon was overseeing a stagnant and stuttering vaccine roll-out until the UK Government intervened and sent the British Army and other military forces to assist the Scottish Government in vaccinating Scots.
The Covid-19 vaccination programme was an unmitigated success in the end and a perfect example of what can be achieved when we work together. The success of the vaccination programme not only saved lives but contributed to the gradual reopening of the economy, the resumption of educational activities and the restoration of—very much needed—social interactions. It truly was the triple-helix model of innovation in action, as the vaccine task force, comprising academia, the universities, industry—we should not forget industry’s involvement in the process—and Government, worked at pace to scale up the successful Covid vaccines that were identified by the University of Oxford and Imperial College London.
Sue Webber is right to say that, when we all work together and pool our resources, we get things done. Could we also learn lessons from the Covid experience to help us to tackle a persistent, long-standing issue such as malaria? Up to 500,000 children die every year from malaria. We could surely do something together to solve that problem on the basis of the lessons learned from the Covid vaccine development that Sue Webber has described.
I wonder whether the member has read my speech—if he can hold on for a second, I will come to that precise point.
The Covid-19 vaccines manufacturing task force played a key part in supporting efforts to access UK supply chains and get ready for the mass vaccination effort that would be needed upon the identification of a suitable vaccine. To reinforce how successful that approach was—as other members have stated—the development of a vaccine takes, on average, 10 years from being discovered to being accessed by patients.
While the UK Government had success, however, we cannot ignore the SNP’s mistakes during Covid. For example, the SNP wanted to join the European Union’s vaccine scheme, which failed. The SNP U-turned on its vaccine passports, and the launch of the vaccine passport scheme was a disaster. In addition, John Swinney was reported to the UK Statistics Authority for sharing a false Covid graphic on his Twitter account.
The accelerated vaccination programmes from AstraZeneca and Oxford have had a positive impact on delivering life-saving vaccines for other diseases, too—there you go, Mr Kerr. For example, the new world-changing malaria vaccine, which was invented at the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford, marks the culmination of 30 years of malaria vaccine research at Oxford with the design and provision of a high-efficacy vaccine that can be supplied at adequate scale to the countries that need it most. Ghana has recently taken up the vaccine and is delivering it to the country’s young children.
Although we fully appreciate the value of the vaccine and the positive knock-on effect that it has had, there are several issues in the health service that we would rather the SNP Government focused on. Those are the issues that matter now and that are causing distress and anxiety across the country.
Scots across the country—adults and children—are waiting far too long for mental health treatment. Our children and young people, many of whom suffered significantly from the unintended consequences of the response to the pandemic, are still being failed by the SNP. Child and adolescent mental health services are the main route to assessment and treatment for children and young people who are seeking help with their mental health, yet, to this day, the SNP’s CAMHS target has never been met.
In the first half of 2022, more than 4,500 children were refused mental health treatment and, between January and June this year, 4,640 referrals to CAMHS were rejected. What support is there for those people? Social Work Scotland has said that
in accessing treatment can lead
“to more entrenched difficulties by the time”
a young child or person is able to
“access a service.”
Drug deaths are another issue that we want the SNP Government to focus on. Under the SNP, drug-related deaths have spiralled out of control and Scotland still has the highest drug death rate in Europe, which is 3.7 times higher than the UK rate. The SNP’s strategies to help those struggling with addiction have failed and are still failing. The target to have medically assisted treatment standards fully embedded across the country by April 2022 has passed, and those seeking treatment are still waiting. Annmarie Ward from Favor says:
“You keep talking, we keep dying.”
That scandal is Scotland’s national shame. Lives are being lost and families are being torn apart. The SNP Government must finally start listening to front-line experts and must back our right to recovery bill.
After 16 years in Government, the SNP seems to be quite out of ideas for tackling those issues head-on. We need a fresh approach that incorporates modern, efficient and local solutions to healthcare.16:35
On 5 May, the World Health Organization declared an end to Covid as a global health emergency. Although that news was welcome, I stress that the WHO still considers Covid to be an on-going global health issue. Nevertheless, that was the first time that Covid’s status had been downgraded since 30 January 2020, which I think we all agree seems like a distant memory.
It would probably be fair to say that—except for those in our community who lived through the 1940s—this has been the biggest challenge that many of us have faced in our lifetimes. The global response was unparalleled. In many countries, including here in Scotland, the approaches that were taken to react to the virus had never before been seen. The WHO reported more than 750 million cases of Covid, which caused just under 7 million deaths. Our thoughts and condolences are with all those who have lost a loved one and with anyone who has been adversely affected by any aspect of the pandemic.
Since those uncertain and, frankly, frightening times in early 2020, we have all seen the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine, which has been the largest mass vaccination programme ever undertaken. As at many points in humanity’s history, great hardship has brought great scientific and technological advances.
This debate celebrates the success of the Covid vaccination programme and its uptake. More than 4 million people living in Scotland have now received the recommended first, second and booster doses of the vaccine and more than 85 per cent of older care home residents in Scotland have received their spring 2023 booster, with that number growing weekly. This successful vaccination programme means that many people who were previously considered to be at highest risk are now far less likely to become seriously ill with Covid-19.
Throughout the pandemic, decisions were taken to prioritise different cohorts for vaccination in order to protect those who were most at risk of serious illness or worse. Decisions to prioritise one population group over another were not taken lightly, nor were they straightforward: many in the chamber will remember the debate that we had about police officers. That is why the Scottish Government’s prioritisation decisions have been, and will continue to be, guided by the independent expert advice that is provided by the JCVI and senior clinicians. As with previous campaigns, vaccinations were first offered, and will continue to be offered, to front-line health and social care workers and those who are most vulnerable to the effects of the virus.
We can celebrate the success of the vaccination programme while also acknowledging the areas where we can improve. Other members have spoken well about that. As was the right thing to do, an independent Scottish public inquiry into Covid-19 has been established to provide scrutiny of the handling of the whole pandemic and to learn lessons from that.
We must learn lessons from a range of voices, including, as others have said and as we heard during the demonstration in the public gallery, from those who remain sceptical about vaccination. The minister’s response to those who were in the gallery was very balanced and took the right tone.
Will the member take an intervention on that point?
I will develop this point before I let the member in.
We need to do more to work with, appreciate and understand people’s concerns and to understand the albeit rare but recorded adverse effects that I think the people in the gallery were talking about. We must understand the impacts on various groups, including those who have previously reacted to vaccination and pregnant women. We in here, and those in the scientific community, might feel that the evidence and advice are clear, but that may not always be the case out there.
Children are another population group. Do we have an understanding of the benefits and risks for children? There are many concerns about that. Why were so many adults willing to roll up their own sleeves at the first opportunity but, when it came to their children, asked, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” If there is another pandemic, or if there is another variant of Covid, we need an understanding of where people are with those questions.
Also, a big thing is the misinformation that you find on the internet. John Mason talked about that. We need to find a way to challenge it, because there is no doubt that people are getting sucked in.
Does Fulton MacGregor agree that we need not so much to look at vaccine scepticism but to pay attention to the minority who have had a bad reaction to the vaccine and understand why that has happened?
Brian Whittle has a point. As MSPs, we will all have had people come to our surgeries who feel that they have had an adverse effect from a vaccine. We need people who are medically qualified to understand what is going on and help to identify those people so that they can be protected. Others have made that case. As Jim Fairlie and others said, we need to bring on board the groups that were represented in the gallery and talk to them as we try to understand where we go.
Although the World Health Organization has declared an end to the global health emergency, we are still faced with a number of post-pandemic challenges, such as backlogs in numerous industries and economic fallout. However, as others have done, I will speak about the effects of long Covid.
The Parliament has often discussed the effects of long Covid and I welcome any measures that we can introduce to support people who suffer from the condition. The Office for National Statistics has noted that just over 3 per cent of people across the UK are self-reporting long Covid symptoms. They include one of my constituents, Jonathan McMullen, whose mum has contacted me several times to explain her son’s debilitating symptoms.
I had more to say on that, but others have covered it and I can see that I am running out of time.
I fully support anything that we can do to support people with long Covid. I ask the minister to take it seriously. This country—the world, actually—has shown how we can quickly find an effective vaccine for Covid. That has saved millions of lives. Surely, we can now come together and find treatments or solutions for long Covid as well.
We come to winding-up speeches.16:42
On behalf of the Labour Party and in the spirit of the motion that was lodged by the Government, I say thank you to the volunteers, healthcare workers, armed forces personnel and all others who were involved in the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccines. It was a collective endeavour of community in this country unknown in my lifetime and the lifetime of many of us.
What happened in those weeks and months as the approach was rolled out is not just about a reaction. We have had the extraordinary, long-term benefit of our university and pharmaceutical research communities, without whom we would never have had the vaccines in the first place. I believe that that feat of urgent and quiet ingenuity and the scale of the scientific achievement that it represents will, in time, come to be compared with the cracking of the Enigma code in the second world war.
The long-term roots of that achievement—the roots of mRNA technology—are in open collaboration between scientists in many of our most advanced economies and communities across the world. That was scaled up by industry to a huge and unprecedented level.
Does Michael Marra also accept that, uniquely, access to data and clinical papers was given free during that time so that the medical community across the world could share the information very quickly?
Sue Webber makes a good point. There is much that we can learn about the advances in scientific research practice that took place over those months. I refer not only to open access to data and the turbocharging of collaboration but to the way in which the scientific testing and proving of the vaccines was accelerated. There have been calls from across the chamber to replicate those approaches for the rapid development of new vaccines for other conditions. The point is well made.
However, all those scientific careers come back to outstanding public education and true discovery science that is beyond the risk of private enterprise. To celebrate that science—to treasure it and really champion it—means funding it. However, in recent days, the head of Universities Scotland has described the Government’s approach to universities as being one of “managed decline”. That should worry every one of us when it comes to the subject that we are talking about. In future years, will we genuinely be able to play our part? We will not, if we continue on the route of managed decline that has been condemned in the Government.
We should not forget that lockdowns bought time for our scientists to bail out our Governments. I do not recognise part of Ben Macpherson’s characterisation of the early days of the pandemic. The approach of the Scottish and UK Governments was out of step with international best practice and with the evidence that was put in front of them. However, they were in lockstep together. Only when communities came together in a spirit of collective self-sacrifice did we managed to contain the virus, which gave us time to turn the situation around.
People have met huge personal costs as a result—not just in the loss of loved ones and of their own health but in the wide-ranging impacts on our communities, our economy, our public services and the way in which people live our lives.
Brian Whittle touched on one of those issues. He was correct to identify the problem of the recruitment of nursing students across the UK. There is also a problem in the recruitment of teaching students, because people’s attitudes to the kind of work that they do, and the strains and stresses that come with it, have changed as a result of the pandemic. An examination of those workforce problems would be a good use of Government time, both in the chamber and elsewhere, because it is a societal problem that will challenge us all in the coming months and years.
The Labour amendment mentions that the vaccine uptake has been lower for certain groups. That has been discussed by various members. Everyone has touched on the need to continue to learn the lessons of why that is. We also need to explore and invest in prevention. The Government has still done almost nothing on ventilation in schools, despite the Labour Party raising that time and again over the past two years. The long-term record in that area is very poor.
According to the published data, vaccine uptake among NHS and social care staff in winter 2022 was very low. Only 39 per cent and 20 per cent respectively took the winter booster. The minister was right to highlight those issues and to talk of the importance of dealing with them.
Alex Cole-Hamilton was right to highlight the issue of transparency when he talked about vaccine hesitancy. We have to build confidence in our public institutions. That is part of the daily work of politics. People have touched, as Christine Grahame did at some length, on the identification of a litany of corruption that ran through the UK Conservative Government from top to bottom—from the VIP lane to the ministerial lobbying scandals. Those have laid low the reputation of Government and politics in this country. Frankly, that will recover only when that Government is kicked out of office.
When will we learn the substantive lessons of the pandemic? Stephen Kerr made a very clear point that the UK Government had made the right bet on the procurement of vaccines. He was correct in that regard. Many mistakes were made but, on that occasion, the UK Government got it right, and we were lucky that it did so.
On long Covid, Carol Mochan called on the Government to meet the sufferers and to recognise their plight. I listened to the debate between Sandesh Gulhane and Jim Fairlie. We have to recognise that the care has not taken place. People are still suffering. Whatever the reason for that and wherever the lack of planning or lack of money sits, people are suffering as a result.
Will the member take an intervention?
I do not have the time, I am afraid. The Presiding Officer is indicating as much.
When will the inquiry start? How slowly does the Government move when the threats of other pandemics are present—when those could come at the speed that Ben Macpherson talked about, so that things can turn in a few months and we find ourselves back in such situations? Would the best tribute to the people whom we have all thanked today not be to announce a date for the inquiry, who will lead it and when we will begin to formally learn those lessons and change the way in which we prepare, so that we can make sure that we do not have to deal with such grievous consequences again?16:49
This debate has been an opportunity to celebrate the success of the Covid-19 vaccination programme. As we have heard during the debate, it was a considerable success. Scotland, as part of the United Kingdom, was a world leader in delivering the Covid-19 vaccine, thereby protecting the population and reducing the incidence of Covid. There is no doubt that lives were saved as a result of the programme.
Everybody in the debate has agreed with that basic point about the success of the programme. In that context, I find it curious, as Sandesh Gulhane said at the start of the debate, that we are spending the best part of two hours debating the subject. It has not really been a debate, because there have not been any points of disagreement, to any great extent, among members.
There are many other serious issues in the NHS that we could have spent the afternoon debating: the crisis in primary care, with a lack of GPs and surgeries closing across the country; the growing waiting times for cancer treatments and other vital treatments; the crisis in child and adolescent mental health services; the crisis in NHS dentistry, into which the Covid-19 Recovery Committee will shortly inquire; the long waits at accident and emergency departments; and ambulance response times. The list goes on.
Our time would have been better spent on those issues than on patting ourselves on the back or looking at something in the past, which—welcome as it was—is not now going to change as a result of the debate.
I will address some issues that have been raised by various members during the debate.
Sue Webber made an important point about the UK’s decision to go it alone and not to join the EU vaccination programme. She reminded us that, at the time, the SNP was calling on us to do just that. That is a very important point that Jim Fairlie, in his contribution, seemed to forget. The former Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, Michael Russell, said that it was “idiotic” not to join the EU programme. He actually went further than that and said that lives would be lost as a result. The then Minister for Mental Wellbeing and Social Care, Kevin Stewart, said that it was “lunacy” and “irresponsible” not to join it. Michael Russell is no longer here, but Kevin Stewart is still in ministerial office and we have yet to hear an apology from him for such ridiculous scaremongering from a Government minister.
The reality is that the UK vaccination programme was a success and that we were among the world leaders in delivering it. We had development of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, 100 million doses of which were ordered by the UK Government. We saw mass vaccination centres quickly being opened. An enormous logistical exercise had to be put in place really quickly, and it worked extremely well.
I agree with John Mason that there were, on occasion, errors. I am sure that we all heard about those from our constituents, but that should not take away from the overall picture of a great success.
I agree with Ben Macpherson that we should pay tribute to those who were working very hard behind the scenes to administer the programme. We also had many people on the front line—thousands of volunteers came forward and were prepared to staff vaccination centres and give up their free time to help others. We should also acknowledge the input of the UK armed forces, which stepped in to assist the NHS and to provide vaccination support in locations across the country.
Other issues came up. Sandesh Gulhane, for example, mentioned the question of GPs being allowed to deliver the vaccine. Like Alex Cole-Hamilton, I think that there were a number of areas of the country where GPs being allowed to deliver the vaccine would have avoided difficulties that some people, especially people in rural areas, had with having to travel large distances.
We still have the problem of long Covid, which Carol Mochan referenced. Lots of promises have been made about helping long Covid sufferers, but as the COVID-19 Recovery Committee heard during our recent inquiry, too many of them still feel that they have been badly let down. One of the saddest things that the committee heard from long Covid sufferers was about the difficulty that they had when they went to their GPs. In too many cases, their GPs were not well informed of the symptoms of long Covid. In some cases, individuals had no alternative but to pay privately to see a GP who had expertise. That is an area in which the Scottish Government needs to do much more.
The vaccination programme continues. I was vaccinated back in the autumn, through my now being in the over-50s group, and I know that take-up of the offer was high. We will need to consider whether vaccinations will be offered for the coming winter season, perhaps in combination with the flu vaccine. It is encouraging that people still recognise the value of vaccination and are willing to participate.
However, there are still issues, including ethnic minority groups—in particular, people from the Afro-Caribbean community—not having taken up the vaccination, which a number of members mentioned. The Polish community seems also to have had a particular issue with regard to access to vaccinations. The Government needs to do a lot of work to reinforce to various groups the absolute necessity of having the vaccination.
I certainly do not think that we should pay much attention to the anti-vax brigade, but we should recognise that people have legitimate concerns about the side effects of some vaccines. Brian Whittle made that point earlier. It is an area in which proper investigation is needed. I hope that, when it gets going properly, the Covid-19 inquiry will spend some time taking evidence from individuals who have been affected by vaccines and their side effects, and that it will look at the whole question. There is, for example, some evidence, and it is well recorded, that the AstraZeneca vaccine might have caused blood clotting in a tiny minority of individuals.
It is important that we retain confidence in the vaccination programme, but when individuals have concerns about a particular vaccine, they should be offered an alternative. I recently raised that issue with NHS Fife on behalf of a constituent. I hope that NHS boards across Scotland will be prepared to be flexible so that when people have legitimate concerns about the potential side-effects of a vaccine, they are given an alternative vaccine rather than the one that they are concerned about.
To close, I note that even with a small minority of patients demonstrating side effects, the reality is that the overall benefits of the vaccination programme outweighed the risks. The vaccination programme allowed the country to get back on its feet much more quickly than might otherwise have been the case. It has been a real success story for Scotland and the whole UK, so we should congratulate all those who were involved in delivering it.16:56
I thank all members for contributing to what has been a helpful, reflective and constructive debate. When we have a Scottish success story, it is only appropriate that we acknowledge it in the chamber, so I am grateful to everybody who has taken part.
There are always lessons that can be learned, but one of the reasons why our vaccination programme was so successful was that lessons were learned at every stage and the programme was adapted accordingly. It was built from scratch three years ago: nobody should underestimate the size of that achievement or the fact that Scotland has consistently had the highest uptake in the UK.
It is also worth reflecting on the digital response. The success of our vaccination programme was as much to do with our investment in digital capabilities as it was to do with our people. It would not have been possible for us to achieve what we achieved without robust digital planning. Thanks to our national vaccination scheduling system, we offered, for the first time at national scale, true choice and flexibility for people in deciding where and when they were vaccinated. However, I have noted Christine Grahame’s point about signage.
The vaccination programme is an example of a service that was built around people, as Fulton MacGregor said. However, I was extremely sorry to hear Alex Cole-Hamilton’s point about what his constituent experienced. If I can be of any help, he should provide me with the details, please.
For the first time, we offered people in Scotland access to their Covid vaccination record through Covid status certification, and we are committed to extending that service for health records more broadly, as Stephen Kerr said in an intervention.
As other members have said, the success of the programme is measured first and foremost by the lives that were saved, as well as by the social and economic freedoms that were returned to us when restrictions were eased as the effectiveness of the vaccination programme took hold.
This week, when I was at home on Islay I passed by the Co-op. During lockdown, I shopped there for a number of people. As a result, I knew what was on every shelf and my shopping was done in the sequence that was set out by the very clear one-way system. As easing of lockdown began, one of the ladies whom I shopped for asked me whether I would take her to the Co. We had our masks on and we made our way around the shop, following the one-way route and keeping 2m apart. I could sense that she was apprehensive—which touches on the point that Martin Whitfield made—but all the protocols that were in place helped her. I know that she enjoyed the freedom to choose her own meals based on what was on the shelves and not on what was on the list that she had given to me. It is the small things that we had taken for granted prior to Covid that we cherish now.
Also, as Jim Fairlie and Brian Whittle said, lockdown really impacted on important family times: we need to acknowledge family and friends having been unable to come together.
I acknowledged in my opening remarks that uptake of the vaccinations in Scotland, although it was impressively high overall and consistently above uptake rates in the other UK nations, was not uniform across all groups. That has been highlighted by the vast majority of speakers in the debate. Over the course of the vaccination programme, relationships with key community leaders representing various groups have been fostered, developed and strengthened. That means that information about the vaccines is presented in a way that is more likely to encourage groups to take up the offer of vaccination, and it means that vaccination is offered to them in environments in which they feel comfortable.
It is always helpful to hear about individual experiences of the vaccination programme. I am sure that I am not the only one who attended their very first Covid vaccination with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. My knowing the prize that was on offer—a return to something resembling normal life—meant that there was never any question that I would not turn up to be vaccinated then and for every subsequent jag.
However, I am aware that, for a number of reasons, some people choose not to come forward and that, for some people who have come forward, the experience was not as smooth as they and I would have wanted it to be. Although such experiences were not the norm, I know that such individual experiences led to improvements at every stage of the process, from the invitation to vaccination to the vaccination itself. I refer again to my remarks in my opening speech about people who have been impacted negatively by the vaccination. We need to listen to them.
I made a point about individuals who have had negative side effects from a particular vaccine and do not want to repeat it. Does the minister agree that NHS boards should offer an alternative vaccine to people who are in such circumstances?
I do not feel that I am clinically aware enough to answer that question. However, it is required that we examine the impacts of vaccines on people.
In conclusion, I repeat my heartfelt thanks to all those who were involved in the vaccination effort at every stage of the process.
Would the minister care to join me in recognising the work of Scotland’s very strong life sciences sector and the dozens of Scottish companies that contributed to the vaccine manufacture supply chain and the test supply chain not just here, but in their contribution to the global fight against Covid?
I agree with my colleague Ivan McKee on the importance of the Scottish supply chain and the life sciences industries, and on the support that Scottish companies gave with regard to PPE, which was very important.
In many ways, the flu vaccine and Covid vaccination programme was an example of how vital but hugely complex projects should be run. It was no accident that it won the best programme award at last year’s Holyrood public sector awards.
However, the work is not done. As Carol Mochan said, spring booster vaccinations are available until the end of June, as is the initial offer of Covid-19 vaccination. Once again, I encourage people who are eligible but have yet to come forward to do so in order to maintain their level of protection against Covid-19 infection.
It is also worth recognising the range of other vaccinations that are offered to us in Scotland throughout our lifetimes by our wonderful NHS. It is important that people receive their immunisations at the right age in order to ensure maximum protection, from the first immunisation appointment—which is scheduled at two months of age—continuing through to the teenage years and throughout adulthood, and in pregnancy to protect mothers and their babies. I thank Fulton MacGregor for his considered thoughts on that. Diseases can be particularly serious in young babies, so it is important to ensure that they are protected as early as possible in order to prevent them from contracting potentially dangerous illnesses including measles, which can have very serious consequences.
Although we have not talked about the other vaccines as much as we have talked about the Covid-19 vaccine in the past few years, it is just as important that when people are called for their shingles, pneumococcal or human papillomavirus vaccines, they attend and get protected. We are pleased to be applying our learning from the pandemic to those wider vaccination programmes so that we improve everyone’s experience, no matter which health intervention they are accessing. I thank Christine Grahame for emphasising that.
We are currently supporting the transition of operational responsibility for the flu and Covid-19 vaccine programmes to Public Health Scotland. That will take place after the spring. That will allow a public-health driven approach to be taken and will build on our world-class vaccination service. Alongside that, we are working in collaboration with a range of partners, including the other three UK nations, to consolidate and improve all of our vaccine programmes, with a focus on high uptake, good systems and a reduction in health inequalities.
Several members touched on the issue of long Covid. The Scottish Government recognises the significant impact that long Covid can have on the health and wellbeing of those who are most severely affected across Scotland. We are making £3 million of our £10 million long Covid support fund available over this financial year to support NHS boards to increase the capacity of existing services to support people with the condition. We are considering the recommendations of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee in its report.
You must conclude now, minister.
I am concluding my speech.
The Covid-19 vaccination programme in Scotland was a success story that saved literally tens of thousands of lives. I urge MSPs across the chamber to acknowledge that success—which was achieved through partnership across the Scottish Parliament and across the country—by rejecting the Opposition amendment and supporting the Government motion.