Care home residents will start getting vaccinated against Covid-19 before Christmas but the vast majority of those under 50 will have to wait until the summer for their jabs.
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said care home residents would begin to be immunised on December 14 as she revealed plans to get the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to the elderly.
In a statement to Holyrood, Ms Freeman provided some clarity on how it would be possible to get the vaccine, which needs to be stored at ultra-low temperatures, into care homes.
The stringent storage conditions had resulted in uncertainty how it would get to the most vulnerable, with Nicola Sturgeon admitting at First Minister’s Questions she could not be “definitive” on how it would be distributed in care homes.
But just as Ms Sturgeon was speaking, discussions were taking place over lunchtime that confirmed the vaccine, which has to be stored at minus 70 degrees Centigrade most of the time, can be transported in an unfrozen state for 12 hours.
National Security, which is part of MI5, is very unsure about the wisdom of making public where our storage is for what is a very precious vaccine indeed.”
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman
Ms Freeman also revealed that it can be stored undiluted for up to five days and, under certain conditions, the packs of 997 doses can be broken down into smaller units.
The Health Secretary said those features made the vaccine “more useable” for care home residents.
“So, in effect, we can take the vaccine to them or close to them and we will begin that exercise from the December 14,” Ms Freeman said.
Those administering the vaccines will begin the two-dose treatment required to protect them against the disease on Tuesday December 8 with the course completed in the New Year.
“From next Tuesday we will begin vaccinating, first, the vaccinators themselves and then work our way through the first cohorts of health and social care workers,” Ms Freeman added.
When the first batch of 65,500 doses arrives in Scotland they will go to 23 commercial freezers across Scotland’s 14 health board areas including those that serve the islands.
MI5’s security concerns
When asked where the freezers were placed, Ms Freeman revealed that the security services had advised against disclosing their location for security reasons.
“National Security, which is part of MI5, is very unsure about the wisdom of making public where our storage is for what is a very precious vaccine indeed,” the Health Secretary said.
A wait for those not in first phase of programme
Ms Freeman told MSPs that 50% of the first batch of vaccines would be kept back to be used for the second doses, to complete the treatment. Future plans would take account of the approval of different brands of Covid vaccines as they come on stream.
Ms Freeman said: “On the basis that we receive the vaccine supply that we expect when we expect it, we should be able to vaccinate the first phase by spring of next year. The rest of the adult population will follow as quickly as possible.”
According to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), Phase One covers the most vulnerable categories of people, a group that begins with care home residents, their carers, over 80s and NHS workers and carers on the coronavirus front line.
It also includes adults over the age of 16 with underlying health conditions and eventually aims to covers all those over 50 – meaning those aged 49 and under will not receive their doses until after spring.
The JCVI guidance suggests that the Phase One groups represent “around 99% of preventable mortality” from coronavirus.
But Ms Freeman’s commitment to deliver the first phase by the spring differed from a previous announcement made to Holyrood last month when she said the aim was to deliver the entire vaccination programme “in full” on that timescale.
The Health Secretary’s original position appeared to be backed by Ms Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions when she said she “very much hoped” that Ms Freeman’s “in full” commitment made last month would be delivered.
Conservative health spokesman Donald Cameron said: “The government must also clear up the confusion that’s emerging over when they believe every phase of the vaccine will be complete.
“SNP ministers have shifted back and forth between spring or later than that. The public needs to understand what is going on so, again, we’re asking that they explain which one is correct because it can’t be both.”
Asked by Orkney MSP Liam McArthur for “assurance” that islanders would be included in the initial stages of the vaccine roll-out, Ms Freeman said freezer storage was available in all island authorities and distribution would be “equitable”.