Humza Yousaf has admitted that staff shortages could delay plans to ramp-up Scotland’s Covid booster programme after new advice made at least one million more people eligible for the vaccine.
The health secretary said that the ability to recruit enough workers to administer the doses was “probably the biggest constraining factor” affecting the accelerated roll-out.
He was speaking after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) recommended an extension to the age groups eligible for the vaccine due to the “changing risk” posed by the discovery of the Omicron variant.
It previously advised that those aged over 40 years and people at higher risk from coronavirus should be offered a booster, but it has now said that anyone over 18 should be eligible.
The experts also said the waiting time between second and booster doses should be halved to three months.
Mr Yousaf, who confirmed on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland radio programme that the number of Omicron cases in Scotland had risen from six to nine, said the new eligibility criteria would pose a challenge.
“We’ve been working with boards to accelerate and ramp-up the vaccine in advance of Christmas and in advance of New Year,” he said.
“We’re getting good returns from the health boards, so we have adequate supply, including with the most recent JCVI advice.
“But the biggest constraining factor is workforce. We would have to go from a position of administering around about just under 500,000 flu and booster vaccines – because don’t forget we’re doing flu vaccines – a week, to around about 700,000 a week.
“That is before yesterday’s advice came out. Now, with yesterday’s advice, we suspect there is an additional at least one million doses added to the eligibility criteria.”
Mr Yousaf added: “We’re working through that, to ramp that programme up, and accelerate it as quickly as we possibly can.”
We’re working through that, to ramp that programme up, and accelerate it as quickly as we possibly can.”
Asked about calls from opposition parties for the reintroduction of mass vaccination centres, Mr Yousaf described the suggestion they could open quickly as “at best ignorant of the challenges in place”.
He said: “You can open up vaccination centres but you have to have the staff. The difference from the first time around is that we hadn’t fully remobilised the NHS.
“The NHS of course is under significant pressure. What we don’t want to do is take people away from the core, important, significant duties of an NHS that is already under significant pressure, and get them doing vaccinations.
“We will certainly do what we can. But before the JCVI advice came out yesterday, just for the acceleration I spoke about a moment ago, we would need an additional 440 whole time equivalents to help us with that vaccination programme.”
However, Mr Yousaf later confirmed that “additional premises are absolutely part of the plan”, as was efforts to “maximise” and “incentivise” staff recruitment.
“We will do everything we can to meet JCVI advice, of course we will do that. But as I say, virtually overnight, people who are not eligible have now suddenly become eligible,” he said.
“So it may be that they have to wait longer but we wouldn’t want that to be significantly longer at all.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will update MSPs on the pandemic response at Holyrood today.