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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 02 December 2020

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Urgent Question, Scottish National Investment Bank, Burntisland Fabrications, Business Support, Urgent Question, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, International Whole Grain Day


Urgent Question

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is an urgent question on Covid-19 vaccine delivery from Donald Cameron. Before calling Mr Cameron, I will comment on the remarks that were made at the Scottish Government’s briefing today in relation to the authorisation of a Covid-19 vaccine. The news of that authorisation is welcome and is a significant matter, but I reiterate to all members that my expectation is that announcements on such significant matters should be made to Parliament in the first instance. It is not a matter for applause.

Covid-19 Vaccine Roll-out

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines following the approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

The Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing (Joe FitzPatrick)

Before answering the question, it would be helpful for me to outline the timeline of events this morning. As we know, this is the news that we have been hoping for since March, so, as the Presiding Officer said, it is good and important news. Last night, there was a four-nations meeting between Scottish ministers and Mr Hancock—

The Presiding Officer

Mr FitzPatrick, before you go on, I point out that you are here to answer the urgent question from Mr Cameron, so I hope that you are not making a remark about my comments from the chair. Please answer Mr Cameron’s question.

Joe FitzPatrick

My point was to lay out when the announcement was made rather than the suggestion that has been made.

The Presiding Officer

Mr FitzPatrick, it sounds to me that you are questioning my ruling and I would rather that you answered Mr Cameron’s question.

Joe FitzPatrick

I will try to include some of that content. The announcement by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency this morning, the publication of the final recommendations of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which met this morning, and the four-nations ministerial call this morning at 6.30 am that followed a call from Matt Hancock last night, were followed up by an announcement to the stock exchange at 7.07 am. At that meeting at 6.30 am, the four ministers—members will be aware that we have agreed that we will always take a four-nations approach—agreed that vaccinations with the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine will start on Tuesday 8 December. As proposed to business managers this morning and subject to the Parliament’s agreement at decision time—

The Presiding Officer

Mr FitzPatrick, please stop. Sit down, please. You are here to answer an urgent question from a member, not to address comments from the chair or any other matter. Please address the question that Mr Cameron asked you and do not address your remarks to my comments.

Joe FitzPatrick

Following all the things that happened this morning, vaccinations with the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine will start in Scotland on Tuesday 8 December. As proposed to business managers this morning and subject to Parliament’s agreement at decision time, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will provide Parliament with further details on the matter in a statement tomorrow.

Donald Cameron

This is a truly breakthrough moment and offers hope of a return to normality at the end of a long and difficult year but, given the significance of the news, it is deeply disappointing that the Scottish Government refused a request to the First Minister to give an urgent statement to Parliament today. In the absence of such a statement, will the minister agree to publish, today, the full vaccine delivery plan that was reviewed at Cabinet yesterday? If not, when will we see it?

Joe FitzPatrick

I have tried to outline the timelines. As I understand it, the Scottish Government’s business manager spoke to other business managers this morning and offered a statement tomorrow, which I hope will be agreed to by Parliament. That will be the point at which it will be possible to discuss all the detail.

A team of people is continuing to work on the detail to ensure that the vaccine is rolled out in Scotland on Tuesday 8 December in a safe and appropriate way. An extensive publication came out from the MHRA this morning, as well as extensive documentation from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. All that detail is being looked at to ensure that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport can give as detailed a statement as possible tomorrow, if Parliament agrees to that, and respond to questions in as much detail as possible.

Donald Cameron

I understand that there are still uncertainties, but vulnerable people and their families need answers as soon as possible. People across Scotland are desperate to know who will be able to access the Covid vaccine first, particularly those with relatives in care homes, where more than 2,000 Scottish people have, tragically, lost their lives. Can the minister confirm today that Scotland will implement the recommendations of the JCVI, which prioritise care home residents and staff?

Joe FitzPatrick

The recommendations of the JCVI were one of the things that were being discussed this morning at 6.30. Of course, the Scottish Government, like the Governments of the other nations in these islands, will be following the advice of the JCVI. That is important.

The paper that was published this morning is a pretty extensive document, and there is a lot of detail in there, but if members look at it, they will see that the JCVI believes that, when we vaccinate all the groups that it recommends be vaccinated first, that will protect 99 per cent of the people most likely to die. It is a significant piece of work and it is important that, across all four nations, we follow the advice of the JCVI.

I want to say to Mr Cameron that this piece of work is a project that has been taken forward on a four-nations basis and in a very collaborative way. Mr Hancock, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and the health ministers in Wales and Northern Ireland have been working closely and collaboratively to ensure that we can deliver the vaccine as quickly and safely as the advice and the supply allows.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

The Scottish Government has previously set out that 23 ultra-low-temperature freezers have been purchased to store the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine. In tomorrow’s statement, will the Government advise whether that approach will help to ensure that access to the vaccine is possible regardless of where someone lives?

Joe FitzPatrick

Obviously, the cabinet secretary will give more detail tomorrow. However, the member is right. The characteristics of the vaccine bring particular challenges in relation to transportation and ultra-low-temperature storage. Those issues are dealt with in some of the advice that was published this morning by the MHRA. Some of the detail that has to be looked at carefully is about the transportation.

We have ensured that there are 23 ultra-low-temperature freezers located throughout Scotland, including three in the Highlands, to account for geography. However, again, we are awaiting final clarification from the MHRA on the extent to which we can pack down and transport the vaccine once it is defrosted, as, clearly, there are some communities that will be unable to travel to the vaccination centres. Board plans are looking to take all that into account, in all of its complexity.

I should just explain the challenge in terms of the packing down. The vaccine will be supplied to the four nations in packs of 997 doses, each of which has to be diluted into batches of five and then used to vaccinate the population. The piece of the puzzle on which we still need to get final answers from the MHRA is whether those 997 doses can be packed down into smaller packages. That is relevant to all the nations, but it is most important for our rural areas, particularly if we cannot transport the vaccine once it has been unpacked.

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

This is a victory for science and we applaud everyone who was involved in the vaccine development, including the volunteers who made the trials possible.

It is fantastic news that people in Scotland will start to get the vaccine in just six days’ time, so the details absolutely matter, because we need to get this right and hit the ground running.

Almost two weeks ago, I asked the cabinet secretary a number of questions, and she promised to write back to me. I do not yet have the answers and I am not sure who is in charge of the vaccine programme; perhaps the minister will advise. Can he tell us tonight what proportion of the 2,000 vaccinators and support staff that the cabinet secretary said will be required by the end of January will be vaccinators? We still do not know. Given that general practitioners will play a crucial role, what support will be in place to make sure that they can still see patients on a timely basis? What additional support is in place for primary care to ensure that people can see their GPs on a timely basis? Lastly, how many national health service and social care staff does the minister think will have had both doses by the end of January?

The Presiding Officer

Ms Lennon, that is several questions.

Monica Lennon

I have asked a lot of those questions before—

Joe FitzPatrick

I am sorry; I did not quite get that. I think that the last question was about the proportion of health and social care staff.

Monica Lennon

I am sorry—your colleagues were being so noisy.

The Presiding Officer

Order, please.

Joe FitzPatrick

The point about health and social care staff. If we look at the advice of the JCVI as it stands, two or three groups are the absolute priority for the first wave: the front-line health and social care staff who have direct, patient-facing roles; people who live in elderly care homes; and people who are over 80.

We are still reliant on the supply of the vaccine but, assuming that it comes in in the way we expect, we hope that that first wave of the most vulnerable groups will be vaccinated by February—certainly by the end of February. We still do not have absolute clarity on the supply chain of the vaccine coming in, so that is a challenge but, within the advice from the JCVI, the groups that Monica Lennon talked about are an absolute priority, so it is important that we get it to them.

I appreciate the tone of the member’s question, because we have a very important role to encourage that group and other vulnerable groups to come forward and get the vaccine. The evidence is really good on the vaccine’s ability to protect individuals, including those most vulnerable people. We still do not know whether it gives herd immunity to protect other people, which means that we might make different choices in the future, but all the advice now is that the vaccine is very good at protecting that vulnerable group.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

It is certainly a good day, but it shows what the Government thinks of this Parliament that it sends the minister to deliver that wholly unconvincing and inadequate explanation this afternoon. Does the minister know why those who were on the shielding list are not prioritised for the vaccine?

Joe FitzPatrick

Those who were on the shielding list are prioritised for the vaccine; they are just not in the very first wave. However, I encourage Willie Rennie to look at the JCVI advice, which goes through a range of individuals. As I said, the first wave starts with those who are over 80, those who live in care homes, and health and care workers and then goes down the age groups, with the exception of very vulnerable 16 to 64-year-olds, who are included in that phase. That group might have been a very late addition, but 16 to 64-year-old vulnerable people are definitely within the priority groups. That is important, because, according to the JCVI, including those people and everyone above the age of 50 accounts for 99 per cent of the likely deaths. Therefore, it is important that we follow the JCVI advice.

On Willie Rennie’s point about respect for Parliament, I go back to the point that the announcement was made by the MHRA this morning. We have always taken a four-nations approach. Matt Hancock made several announcements about the date on television this morning. There was also a briefing from the JCVI at 10 am this morning, so the suggestion that we have made the announcement in some other way is bizarre.

I hope that members appreciate the huge amount of work that is going into ensuring that the programme in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK is effective and safe. It is a massive collaborative effort across the four nations, and all the folk who are involved in bringing together the programme to ensure that vaccination can start next Tuesday should be congratulated by us all.