For much of its 58-year long existence, the scientists who sat on the government's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) lived a life of happy obscurity. But now the poor men and women who make up its membership have been thrust into the limelight amid furious Whitehall rows over whether 12 to 15 year-olds should be given the Covid vaccine.
Members of Boris Johnson's government are said to disagree with the JCVI's rulings but have had their hands tied by the committee's status as a statutory basis for giving advice in England and Wales – though intriguingly not Northern Ireland or Scotland. Judging by Nicola Sturgeon's recent comments however, you would be forgiven for not knowing this distinction.
At the end of last month the First Minister told a Covid press conference: 'I suppose if I was making a plea to the JCVI – it is not for me to tell them what decision to reach, they have got to do that on the basis of the evidence – but please make it quickly.' She was assisted in such claims by her National Clinical Director (and sometime ministerial shield) Jason Leitch, who insisted that the vaccine programme for school children was ‘ready to go’ as soon as the JCVI issued their advice.
Similar comments have been made in relation to a possible booster programme, something ministers across the UK had banked on to save us from another bleak winter of restrictions and illness. But what is often missed is that the JCVI has no legal basis to enforce restrictions on the governments of Scotland or Northern Ireland. Its Code of Practice states:
“JCVI has no statutory basis for providing advice to Ministers in Scotland or Northern Ireland. However, health departments from these countries may choose to accept the Committee’s advice or recommendations. Specific advice given by JCVI in response to a request from any one UK health department or Minister is not binding on any of the other Ministers of the Devolved Administrations or UK Government.
Some brave souls have pointed this out, with Professor Andrew Watterson telling BBC Radio Scotland that there was nothing stopping Nicola Sturgeon from going ahead with any vaccine programme, based on her own scientific advice. This begs the question: why are senior advisors such as Leitch and Linda Bauld continuing to defer to the JCVI, if they genuinely believe such a delay to be harmful?
Professor Bauld has even criticised the makeup of the JCVI saying a lack of Scottish representation led to oversights about the school return dates in Scotland and how this affected the window for a pupils vaccine rollout. But why would a committee with no statutory footing in Scotland need Scottish representation? The Scottish Government is overflowing with its own ministers and advisors as it is.
Of course, there might be difficulties in going against the advice of the committee, even if they are free to do so. But that doesn’t usually stop the nationalist government, who have looked for any and every opportunity throughout the pandemic to differ from UK policy.
If Scottish ministers and advisors want to align with the UK on vaccines and other policies, many would welcome it. But they should be upfront that this is a political and strategic decision they have made and stop hiding behind a convenient committee with no power in Scotland.