Covid vaccine: There are worrying signs that Scotland could fall at the final hurdle – Willie Rennie

Holyrood’s Health Secretary told the Parliament last week she has been told by MI5 not to identify the location of 23 super fridges.

Has Nicola Sturgeon, seen visiting Edinburgh's Western General Hospital ahead of the start of the Covid vaccination programme in Scotland, learned the lessons from this year's botching flu vaccination drive, wonders Willie Rennie (Picture: Russell Cheyne/pool/Getty Images)
Has Nicola Sturgeon, seen visiting Edinburgh's Western General Hospital ahead of the start of the Covid vaccination programme in Scotland, learned the lessons from this year's botching flu vaccination drive, wonders Willie Rennie (Picture: Russell Cheyne/pool/Getty Images)

This year has taken many twists and turns but by any stretch that’s an extraordinary sentence. It makes perfect sense.

Our country has spent near enough a year in and out of lockdowns.

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More than 5,000 Scots have succumbed to this virus, too many without their loved ones by their side. Thousands of people have lost their jobs and their families have been left worrying about the future. Cherished local businesses have been forced to shut their doors for good.

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Vaccine is the only way out

The vaccine is the cure to that continued suffering. Today is the day the first Scot gets to take it. No wonder it needs to be kept safe.

As we eagerly watched footage of the Pfizer vaccine lorry trundling along the motorways of Belgium and eventually through the Channel Tunnel on to home turf, many of us breathed that first sigh of relief.

From the point the pandemic kicked off back in March, in what feels like a different lifetime, we knew that a vaccine, if we were lucky enough to find one, was the only way out.

In the ten months that have elapsed since, the government should have been putting the vaccine infrastructure in place to have that ready to go.

The end is near, the tunnel is getting brighter, but we’re not bathed in light just yet.

Our quality of life over the next few months, the outlook of so many struggling firms and the safety of thousands of people are all pinned on the strength of that vaccine planning and sadly the only blueprint we have to go on is the botched roll-out of this year’s flu jab.

Risk of third wave

The disorderly nature of the flu jab operation in Fife, the Highlands, the Borders, Edinburgh and elsewhere was embarassing and set alarm bells ringing for those of us very focused on the even bigger inoculation challenge just around the corner.

People were left waiting on the phone for hours without getting through to under-resourced call centres, failing to get appointments after weeks of trying or being sent miles away to get the jab even when they don’t have their own car. Lessons must be learnt.

The scientists aren’t yet sure if the Covid vaccine can stop you spreading the disease as well as personally suffering from it.

While that question remains unanswered we need to still be cautious.

I’m clear that unless government communication is crystal clear about the timeline of this rollout we could fall victim to a third wave of this virus, even as the vaccine is distributed. We can’t afford to lose more lives when the cure is ready and out there on the roads.

Mammoth mistakes

We have already seen confusion last week over whether the plan is to complete the vaccination program by spring, or whether that is just the first wave of it. This ambiguity needs to be smoothed out sharpish.

If the government is asking for months more of sacrifices, they need to be clear about what the plan is and when people can expect to get their lives back on track if everyone plays their part.

In particular, we need to know at what point enough people will have been vaccinated for businesses to reopen and normal social interactions to return.

However, if ministers do not communicate this clearly, there is a huge risk that people will relax before the danger has truly passed. A third wave of deaths coming just as the vaccine is distributed would be a tough cross to bear.

My party will continue to work constructively with the Scottish government but I urge them to listen to these warnings.

For much of the pandemic, while the vaccine was in the works, the focus was on testing. It was our most viable method of maintaining a modicum of normality, keep shops and hospitality venues open in a safe and socially distant manner, care homes safe and people in work.

But this government made mammoth mistakes.

The hard part is done

Ministers kept their cards close to their chest, and often dithered, over student testing, care home testing for staff, resident and visitors and the set-up of test and protect. The result was that each of these systems had major flaws which could have been avoided. That secretive approach dented our progress.

At this delicate moment, we cannot afford to see more of the same.

The next big hurdle is going to be the strategy that guides us through the months when the vaccine is being delivered, bit by bit, to priority groups before it reaches the rest of the public.

If Oxford-AstraZeneca’s offering secures regulatory approval in the coming days that task will immediately become a lot easier, but we have to be prepared for what happens if it doesn’t. We’ll be reliant on these immobile super fridges to store a very delicate vaccine that needs to be housed at minus 80 degrees.

But in these difficult times, we’ve got to have plans in place for all the ifs and buts.

We need to see a transparent and honest assessment from the First Minister for how life is going to look from Christmas until this vaccine is fully dispersed.

The vaccine exists. That’s the hardest part of this exercise done.

We can’t trip at the last hurdle in giving it out.

Willie Rennie is MSP for North East Fife and leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats

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