The coronavirus vaccine may not be widely rolled out until the end of next year as a result of the Scottish Government’s “woefully inadequate” plans, Gordon Dewar warned MSPs.
Tourism businesses will fail unless distribution of the jabs is accelerated and vaccines will be stranded in fridges while people die from the coronavirus, a leading figure in the Scottish aviation sector says.
Appearing at Holyrood, Mr Dewar, Edinburgh Airport chief executive, delivered a damning verdict on Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic and even accused the first minister of campaigning against his industry.
Mr Dewar reacted angrily to Ms Sturgeon’s advice not to book a summer holiday at the moment. Ms Sturgeon issued the advice after a genetic study suggested the second Covid wave was caused by travel from abroad and the rest of the UK.
We arguably have one of the worst-managed Covid crises in Europe, if you judge it by any of the statistics about levels of infections and deaths…”
Edinburgh Airport chief executive Gordon Dewar
Giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Covid committee, Mr Dewar said: “We arguably have one of the worst-managed Covid crises in Europe, if you judge it by any of the statistics about levels of infections and deaths, and we are now the slowest responding to aviation tourism.
“Right down to the fact that yesterday the first minister actively called on people to not book their summer holidays next year. So, we have now got people campaigning against our industry – sorry, not people – we have a first minister campaigning against our industry.
“So all of that says that if I was an airline I would be saying, well, let’s forget about the UK next year. Certainly, let’s forget about putting any of our faster start-up or focus on the UK and that’s before I get on to Brexit.”
Mr Dewar called for a year-long Air Passenger Duty (APD) holiday, saying the industry is suffering from the world’s “least cost-effective” tax regime.
The aviation industry had already felt the impact of Covid with Edinburgh Airport forced to make one third of its workforce (250 people) redundant and now operating at 5% of its normal capacity.
‘Hurdle after hurdle…’
Mr Dewar said the airport had recorded losses of £16 million and had to borrow to keep going. The chief executive expressed deep dismay at the Scottish Government’s approach to airport testing, revealing that an offer of help from Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow airports had been ignored by ministers.
Nearly four months had been spent coming up with a “robust” plan for airport testing.
“Hurdle after hurdle has been thrown at us, put in our way,” claimed Mr Dewar, who added that airports were now in the “bizarre position” of considering using Freedom of Information legislation to locate their submission.
“We are still talking while the rest of the world has acted,” Mr Dewar said.
He said quarantine arrangements, which require incoming passengers to self-isolate for 14 days, are not working as only about 65% of travellers are observing the restrictions.
While the airport has a testing system in place, he said, it is mainly to service the pre-flight requirements of other nations.
He said: “We are still the only country in Europe – and I repeat that, the only country in Europe – that is not using a testing regime to support and make flying safe again.”
Concerns about the Covid vaccine roll-out
Addressing MSPs, Mr Dewar argued the Scottish Government could not afford to turn down private sector help to get the country out of a “desperate” crisis.
Mr Dewar said his airport is offering help in terms of offering a site to administer the jabs, but also as people with expertise in moving large numbers of people.
“We have looked at the designs they are looking at to deliver vaccine roll-out and they are woefully inadequate,” Mr Dewar said. “They will not deliver a wide vaccine capability until the back end of next year, as it stands.
“Put this in context, they are not even attempting to start vaccine – mass drive-through centres until February. I genuinely think we have got an extremely high probability that, come March, we will have availability of vaccine – potentially multiple vaccines in fridges in Scotland and no method of delivering them while people are still dying of Covid.”
They are already on a 17-month winter because this summer’s been written off and is effectively worse than the worst winter to date.”
Gordon Dewar of Edinburgh Airport
Mr Dewar described the vaccination programme as a “huge opportunity” to stimulate the post-Covid recovery, but his concerns around the inadequacy of the roll-out meant he fears for Scotland’s tourism industry.
Mr Dewar, who sits on the Scottish Tourism Alliance, pointed out that most businesses in the sector are family-run and cast doubt on them surviving unless the vaccine is delivered speedily.
“Normally they (family tourism businesses) struggle to get through a five-month winter,” Mr Dewar warned. “They are already on a 17-month winter because this summer’s been written off and is effectively worse than the worst winter to date.
“Unless we get the vaccine deployed by early summer or late spring, we are going to be facing into a 29-month winter and, let me tell you, there are very, very few of the companies that will survive that.”
Mr Dewar added that unless action is taken soon, there would be no tourism industry for visitors from abroad once travel restrictions are finally relaxed.
Donald Cameron, Conservative health spokesman, said there is a “complete lack of detail and answers” from the SNP on how the vaccine will be rolled out in Scotland.
“Despite repeated calls, SNP Ministers are not giving urgent answers on significant issues and are leaving the public in the dark. It is simply not good enough.
“The SNP are already running the risk of repeating the shambles we saw with the flu jab programme this year and many Scots who are understandably excited about receiving a vaccine will be worried that plans are nowhere near being in place.”
Labour health spokeswoman Monica Lennon said: “This is serious criticism of SNP ministers. Throughout the course of the pandemic, this government has been far too slow on mass testing.
“The lack of availability of widespread community testing over the summer meant that when cases of the virus were reintroduced in the autumn, flare ups weren’t caught quickly enough – and we are now seeing the effects of this in the second wave. The same mistakes must not be repeated when it comes to the vaccine roll out.”
Committee member Annabelle Ewing of the SNP asked Mr Dewar about the genomic research into Covid-19 that was revealed on Wednesday, pointing to the role of travel in reseeding the virus around Scotland during the summer of 2020.
Mr Dewar said: “I had a look at that and what it certainly demonstrates is that quarantine didn’t work.”
Ms Ewing responded: “We’re going through a pandemic and each country will try the best it can to do the best it can. But certainly before the second wave in Scotland we were doing pretty well indeed.”