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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 02 February 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Construction and Procurement of Ferry Vessels, Scottish Parliament (Assistance for Political Parties) Bill: Stage 3, Decision Time


Topical Question Time

Covid-19 (Vaccine Roll-out)

To ask the Scottish Government how the effectiveness of the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine in Scotland compares with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. (S5T-02640)

By 8.30 am today, 610,778 people had received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine since 8 December. Yesterday, 34,881 doses were administered in Scotland, which was a 55 per cent increase on the previous Monday.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation was clear that for vaccination to be as effective as possible in preventing mortality from Covid-19, the initial focus must be on older care home residents. In Scotland, 98 per cent of older care home residents have had their first dose. Northern Ireland is reporting a similar proportion, and up to yesterday almost 76 per cent of older care home residents in Wales had had their first dose. England has reported that it has offered doses to all care homes, but there is no publicly available information on the proportion that has been administered.

The rationale for prioritising delivery in the way that we have is clear: age is the greatest risk factor. The Covid-19 actuaries response group has reported its estimate that 20 older care home residents have to be vaccinated in order to prevent one death from Covid-19. That figure increases significantly as we go down the ages. The purpose is to prevent death and serious illness as far as possible, so our prioritisation of the JCVI’s groups is the right approach to take.

There has never been a policy intervention as universal in its delivery and so profound in its importance as the Covid vaccination roll-out. As a consequence, people want and deserve straightforward answers with plain facts. They do not want Scottish National Party ministers in Scotland and Conservative ministers in England pointing the finger at one another and dancing on the heads of statistical definitions.

The plain fact is that Scotland has vaccinated 12.7 per cent of our population, compared with 14.8 per cent in Northern Ireland, 16.1 per cent in Wales and 17.8 per cent in England. Scotland has the lowest vaccination rate among the devolved nations and, indeed, the English regions. The Secretary of State for Scotland has claimed that half a million vaccinations remain in storage and have not been called down by the Scottish Government.

We do not want vaccine nationalism or flag waving, but simple answers to simple questions. Why are we behind, what is being done to catch up and are we vaccinating enough people each day?

There are at least two things in what Daniel Johnson said with which I completely agree. I, too, think that people do not want politicians pointing fingers at each other, and I believe that we need to vaccinate faster in Scotland than we have been.

The plans that are in place from this week onwards will significantly increase the number of vaccinations. I will come back to those plans in a moment. I make the additional point that I disagree with the Secretary of State for Scotland’s numbers. They are wrong, but I am not going to get into a debate about that, because we deliberately and consciously, and in a spirit of co-operation, agreed not to publish such figures in order to respect commercial confidentiality and the wishes of the United Kingdom Government.

We cannot square that position with the Secretary of State for Scotland constantly appearing on broadcast media and in print quoting numbers to which we are, apparently, not allowed to respond. I make the simple point that he is wrong about the number of vaccine doses in storage.

We have done a number of things. Later this week, I will write to all members of the Scottish Parliament and all Scottish MPs explaining the changes in vaccine delivery that we are making; the number of additional sites—local sites and supercentres such as NHS Louisa Jordan and the Edinburgh International Conference Centre—that are being stood up; and progress on vaccination of the over-70s and clinically extremely vulnerable people and how we will meet our target to vaccinate them all by the middle of February. We are doing that as well as opening up vaccination slots for people aged over 65, after which we will move on to people aged over 60 and those who have underlying health conditions.

All that detail will be set out for MSPs later this week, along with a list of the centres in each health board area that are, in addition to GP surgeries, providing vaccinations. Some are small and some are large—that depends on an area’s geography. We are minimising the amount of travel that individuals in the first four cohorts must undertake to be vaccinated, because we want to encourage maximum take-up and to minimise the obstacles in people’s way.

I urge the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Scottish Government to get a grip of the situation. Numbers are out there and the disagreement is causing confusion. Given that numbers have been publicised, can we please have clarity?

It is also critical that we have clarity about the process, progress and targets. NHS Lothian claims that the data for the over-80s vaccination programme, which general practitioners are delivering, is not included in the weekly figures that Public Health Scotland publishes. That claim comes a week after the health board said that the guidance is not clear. We also have significant variation in health boards’ vaccination rates.

People want simple answers to basic queries. Do the Public Health Scotland figures capture all those who have been vaccinated? Are some health boards doing better than others and, if so, why? We missed the target of 1 million vaccinations by the end of January. How many people will have been vaccinated by the end of February?

Mr Johnson made a number of points, which I will go through one by one. On data, I could not agree more with him. At the most senior level, involving Michael Gove and our First Minister, an agreement was reached that the four health ministers of the UK’s four nations would agree on what data we would and would not publish. We agreed not to publish information on future supplies, and we discussed what we agreed to publish.

No sooner had that agreement been reached than the Secretary of State for Scotland was out there talking about numbers. I have written to my counterparts—Mr Hancock, Mr Gething and Mr Swann—with a proposition on what we will publish and how, so that we get rid of confusion about numbers. I completely agree that it is important to do that.

Some GP data is subject to a time lag. When we vaccinate anywhere other than in GP practices, we use the vaccine management tool, which produces the numbers that are downloaded for us almost two hourly. Some GPs are included through the tool, and those that are not upload their data at the end of the day. That can mean that there is a lag between what we have at 8.30 in the morning and everything that we receive from general practices. We are working to resolve that and to minimise the lag as much as possible.

There has been significant variation among health boards. That variation is reducing, as we sit with each board to look at its plans and numbers so that we can identify when variation is unacceptable and we need a board to do more. For example, NHS Ayrshire and Arran had planned its clinics for vaccinating cohorts 3 and 4 for too late in the month. It has removed that information from its website while it replans the clinics to bring the date forward. We are doing as much as we can. We are looking in great detail at what each board is doing and ensuring that boards communicate clearly with the people for whom they are responsible.

When things need to be fixed, such as distribution and supply of vaccines around Scotland, we are taking steps to improve. When there is a lag in data, we are taking steps to improve that. When we cannot make the situation better, we explain that clearly.

As I said, once we have resolved the position, a lot of detail will be sent to all MSPs and Scottish MPs later this week. I hope that we will reach agreement across the four nations this week about the data that we will publish and the data that we stick to.

Looking to the future, can the cabinet secretary say what plans are in place for prioritisation of vaccination of people who sit outside the JCVI priority cohorts? Which, if any, public sector workers, will get priority?

The JCVI is currently considering what advice, if any, it wants to offer the four nations after vaccination of the priority groups has been completed down to people aged 50 and over. We are waiting to hear what the JCVI wants to say to us and whether it will offer any advice. In the meantime, there is some thought being given to that in the Government. However, it is too early to reach a conclusion, especially as we consider how the new strain, which is becoming increasingly dominant, behaves.

The chief medical officer’s advisory group is keeping an eye on all of that. The JCVI is giving thought to what, if any, prioritisation there will be once we have reached all those over 50, and whether it will relate to sectoral or other groups. Once we have received that advice and reached a view, we will ensure that Parliament is made aware of it and the reasoning behind it.

Today, the national clinical director said that the vaccination programme is “not a race”, but the First Minister has said repeatedly that we are in a race against the virus. I hope that it is a race, and that we will win that race, because that way we will save lives. Are we going as fast as possible to win that race?

The First Minister is right that it is a race against the virus—a virus that is increasingly more infectious than it was this time almost a year ago. The race is twofold. First, we have to vaccinate the JCVI groups as quickly as we can. Secondly, we have to put as many obstacles as possible in the way of the virus being transmitted from one person to another. At the moment, we do not know that the vaccine will do that. Minimising the virus’s opportunity to transmit between people will depend on the actions and behaviour of us all, through complying with restrictions.

As I said to Mr Johnson, I want us to go faster in vaccinating the adult population in the JCVI groups in particular, because we know that the more of them we vaccinate, particularly the older people, the more deaths we are likely to prevent. Every day we are looking in detail at what more we can do and how much faster we can go. Some steps are already in place to ensure that we remove obstacles that restrict pace, but there is undoubtedly more to do. I assure members that I look at that every day, and that our First Minister is very alert to all the actions that we are taking and is challenging us to do much more.

Crown Office (Malicious Prosecution Compensation Payments)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact there will be on the Crown Office budget as a result of any payments of compensation to individuals involved in the administration and liquidation of Rangers Football Club, following the admission that they were victims of malicious prosecution. (S5T-02638)

Before calling Mr Fraser, I should say that this is still a live issue. I am sure that members and the cabinet secretary will be careful not to make any comments that would impinge on that.

That is why, as Cabinet Secretary for Finance, I am answering the member’s question, as it specifically asks about budget. Any legal element of the case would be for the Lord Advocate.

Last week, I outlined the budget for 2021-22, including the budget for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. It is now for the Justice Committee to scrutinise the COPFS budget. Arrangements have been made so that the settlements of the cases, including those referred to in Murdo Fraser’s question, will not affect the operational effectiveness of the COPFS. They will not require to be met from the COPFS resource allocation that I announced as part of the budget last week.

This case is a scandal. Innocent individuals were treated like terrorists. They were arrested, taken from their homes and held in police custody at the risk of imprisonment and financial ruin, when they had committed no crimes and there was no evidence against them of any significance. As a consequence of what the Lord Advocate has now admitted, we know that the prosecutions were motivated by malice. That is what we might see in Putin’s Russia, not in 21st century Scotland.

To make matters worse, if we are to believe media reports, David Whitehouse and Paul Clark have already been paid £24 million in taxpayers’ money, with other claims still pending. At a time when businesses and individuals are crying out for more Covid support, that is simply outrageous. Can the cabinet secretary confirm whether those payments have been made?

I understand the emotion in Murdo Fraser’s question. As I said, any questions about the legal implications of the case are for the Lord Advocate. Arrangements have been made so that the settlements will not affect the service that the Crown Office provides to victims and witnesses. I can assure Murdo Fraser that they will also not affect the other budget lines that he highlighted.

Yesterday, the Lord Advocate wrote to the Justice Committee to advise that the actions at the instance of Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse are still pending before the Court of Session. A hearing in the action brought by Mr Whitehouse will be called later this week. The Lord Advocate will be able to provide an update on the disposal of the respective proceedings brought by Mr Clark and Mr Whitehouse.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, although she did not respond to my question. Although the matter is still before the courts, it is a very minor procedural matter that still needs to be disposed of. Taxpayers are entitled to know whether £24 million of our money has been paid to these individuals. I understand that a tax indemnity substantially increased the sums that were paid.

There are serious issues to be addressed. It is essential that there is public confidence in the justice and prosecution systems. We have seen catastrophic failures that could amount to corruption. Does the Scottish Government now accept that the only way to get the answers is to have a full, independent and judge-led public inquiry?

Subject to the agreement of the Parliamentary Bureau, the Lord Advocate intends to make a statement to the Scottish Parliament on the matter at the earliest opportunity. I am sure that Murdo Fraser will have the opportunity to ask further questions at that point.