If I had a penny for every time I heard someone say that Nicola Sturgeon has had a ‘good pandemic’, I’d be living in my very own Scottish castle by now. Imposing restrictions one step ahead of Boris Johnson seems to have become Sturgeon’s go-to formula. But if the First Minister has been praised for her initial response to Covid-19, Sturgeon is running out of excuses to explain why Scotland’s vaccine programme lags behind that of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Having just managed to catch up on the over 80s briefly at the weekend, Scotland has now fallen significantly behind in its vaccination of the over 70s. And with England soon to call over 65s for appointments, Sturgeon is finding herself in increasingly hot water. Only 14 per cent of people between 75 and 79 in Scotland have received their first dose compared to more than three-quarters of that group in England.
Sturgeon has been quick to blame the delays on everything from supply issues to the logistical difficulties of vaccinating care homes first. But since both of these challenges have been surmounted by the other three nations this is hard to accept.
Indeed, in an embarrassing development for Sturgeon, the Secretary of State of Scotland Alister Jack has written to the Scottish government ‘to offer any support or assistance to accelerate’ the rollout programme so that it keeps pace with the rest of the UK. Sturgeon has responded angrily. 'They are our Armed Forces, too, which the people of Scotland pay for through taxes. So let us forget the suggestion that the UK Government is somehow doing Scotland a favour,' she said yesterday.
So why the lag in Scotland? Contrary to Sturgeon’s early claims, it’s certainly not one of supply – as Jack points out in his letter, Scotland has had access to the same pool of doses as the rest of the UK.
The issues Scotland is facing could well date back to health policy decisions made before the pandemic. For all their controversy, Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms made during the Coalition years have stood England in good stead for a mass vaccination programme by empowering GPs.
But the situation north of the border is more confusing. Scottish GPs face labyrinthine layers of bureaucracy when it comes to getting hold of vaccines. First, they have to approach their regional health board who passes on the information to NHS Scotland's National Procurement service, which then advises its 'distribution partner', healthcare firm Movianto. According to Scotland's 'vaccine deployment plan', 'once stock is released for ordering, the distribution partner inputs the GP orders on to their ordering system'. The vaccines are then typically delivered only once a week to GP surgeries. Confused? So am I. With so many hurdles between the GPs and the doses, it’s little wonder the rollout has been so slow.
But as the tone of Jack’s letter suggests, there is another factor holding Scotland back. Wales, whose health service is more comparable to Scotland’s, is only just behind England in its rollout. Could this be because the Welsh government have fewer qualms about working with the rest of the Union?
As early as December last year the Welsh government applied for military aid so that the armed forces could assist with the rollout. At the start of January, it had 22 mass vaccination centres up and running, compared to just one in Scotland. Only this week did Scotland open two further mass vaccination sites in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. And only now is Sturgeon finally backing large-scale involvement of the British military with a further 80 military-run vaccination sites planned.
As ideologically irksome as it might be for Nicola Sturgeon to accept help from the rest of the UK, this is not the time for pride. After months of trying to outdo the rest of the UK with her Covid rules, she is now in danger of politicising the Scottish vaccination strategy. Time will tell whether Scotland can catch up. But it's worth asking whether Sturgeon's reluctance to cooperate with the Union may be slowing down Scotland's vaccine rollout.