A million Scots will receive the coronavirus vaccine by the end of January in “one of the biggest civilian logistical challenges in our lifetime”, the health secretary has confirmed.
Jeane Freeman told MSPs that every person over the age of 18 in Scotland will eventually be able to receive the jab, and that an initial workforce of more than 2,000 doctors, nurses, pharmacists and dentists will be ready before February.
The wider population may need to wait until late spring or early summer to be vaccinated – and even then public health officials fear the programme may need to be repeated several times before the country can return to normal.
But the first “early and limited” delivery of doses to Scotland is expected to take place in the first week of December, and officials are hopeful some individuals may even be able to be vaccinated in their own home, depending on the properties of the drug.
Pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna have announced effectiveness of more than 90% in phase three clinical trials for each of their candidate vaccines in recent weeks, and a further 10 are still undergoing medical research – including three in Scotland.
Ms Freeman said the Scottish Government is planning on the basis that the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) will be able to recommend a licence be given to at least one of the vaccines in the coming weeks.
The health secretary said the global scientific research and pharmaceutical community had come together like never before but while the speed of development is impressive, “it is not at the expense of safety”.
She said: “In the first wave of our plan, from December through to February, we will vaccinate front-line health and social care staff, older residents in care homes, care home staff, all those aged 80 and over, unpaid carers and personal assistants, and those who will be delivering the vaccination programme.
“The current interim advice from JCVI is that we then work through those aged over 65 and those under 65 who are at an additional clinical risk, and then we move to the wider population.”
Ms Freeman said ministers were hopeful that more than one vaccine may be available “over the coming weeks into 2021” but said there was still a number of challenges and unknowns in the delivery programme that could take months to fully resolve.
She said those in the first tranche to receive the jab will be contacted in December and January by mail or – for health and care workers – by their employer.
A national online booking system will also be available from the beginning of phase two of the programme, in February, and Ms Freeman confirmed medical workers, including some who are retired, will help staff the Covid jab workforce.
“We need a workforce that is diverse in its skills and availability,” she said.
“Our planning assumption is that, for vaccinators and support staff, we will need over 2,000 by the end of January so that, vaccine availability and delivery schedules yet to be confirmed, we will be able to vaccinate around a million people by that time.
“We, of course, need registered clinicians to vaccinate and to supervise vaccinations, nurses and doctors, but also the wider clinical workforce, such as pharmacists, dentists and optometrists.”
The health secretary said the Scottish Government plans to provide vaccinations in a variety of locations, including GP practices, pharmacies and, “depending on the vaccines’ properties”, for some people at home.
Concern over ‘practical aspects’
Responding to a question from Scottish Conservative health spokesman Donald Cameron, Ms Freeman said ministers also hope to deliver the approved jab directly in care homes for both residents and staff.
Mr Cameron said the health secretary’s statement lacked “many details on the practical aspects of delivering the vaccine”, including issues in delivering it across high-density urban areas and sparsely-populated rural areas.
Ms Freeman said: “Our boards are looking at using some of the existing flu infrastructure in those larger walk-through and drive-through flu vaccination centres, more appropriate for urban areas and certain cohorts of our population.
“We will also use mobile vaccination units, we will use more local high street vaccination centres and we will make sure that we are as accessible in the vaccination programme to people the length and breadth of Scotland.”
Call for details on recruitment
Scottish Labour’s health spokeswoman, Monica Lennon, said it was “extremely encouraging” to hear the vaccine would be made available as soon as possible but warned the rollout must not fail.
She said: “The workforce will be crucial to this work getting under way safely and quickly. However, lessons must be learned from the chaotic flu vaccination programme.
“The ambition to deliver one million vaccinations by the end of January needs to be matched by resources and investment in staff, and a clear plan on logistics.
“The health secretary has identified that 2,000 staff will be needed initially to roll out one million vaccinations by the end of January.
“More detail needs to be provided on recruitment, training and how essential NHS services will be able to continue in parallel with the ambitious Covid-19 vaccination programme.”