Doses of coronavirus vaccine may need to be flown into the country on military planes to avoid Brexit delays under contingency plans being considered by UK ministers, Scotland’s health secretary has said.
Jeane Freeman said the Scottish Government had been made aware of backup plans for supplies arranged by UK officials if medicines and other essentials are held up by delays at ports in the new year.
It came as the number of people who have tested positive for coronavirus in Scotland surpassed 100,000 for the first time, with a further 643 new cases and five deaths recorded. The total death toll of those with confirmed infections now stands at 3,916.
The first supplies of the Pfizer and BioNTech jab arrived in Scotland on Saturday and are being stored securely ahead of the first vaccinations on Tuesday.
But tens of millions of doses manufactured in Belgium could be transported to the UK by air if road, rail and sea routes are subjected to widely expected disruption whether or not a trade deal can be agreed during crunch talks with the EU this week.
Brexit negotiations resumed on Sunday in what was described as a “last throw of the dice” but some officials fear even changes outlined in a last-minute breakthrough would now see severe issues at ports and commercial airports in the weeks and months ahead.
Appearing on the BBC’s Politics Scotland programme on Sunday, Ms Freeman confirmed military transport may also be needed for other medicines, including those used to treat the most severely ill patients in intensive care.
She said: “That’s our understanding, is that the UK Government has made these contingency plans for the supplies in case Brexit does hold things up at ports.
“At the moment they are coming in the normal way, but we certainly expect every step to be taken to ensure that supplies are not hindered by any kind of Brexit deal, including a no-deal Brexit, whatever it is.
“We need to get these supplies, but we also need to get other medicines into the country. There are many important medicines, not least medicines that we use in ICU and our acute hospitals that we need to ensure come regularly.”
Ms Freeman said it was the “intention” for those medicines to also be flown in, and discussions were ongoing at a UK level.
Britain’s medical authorities approved the rollout of the Pfizer and BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine on Wednesday morning, paving the way for vaccination to start this week. The jab has been shown in studies to be 95% effective and works in all age groups.
‘Mixed messaging and confusion’
A trial of coronavirus testing for care home visitors will begin in facilities in Aberdeenshire and Fife on Monday but Ms Freeman was unable to say when all care home residents and staff who wish to receive the vaccine will be able to do so.
The health secretary was also at the centre of confusion after refusing to rule out level four restrictions remaining in place for some areas of the country beyond December 11 – and then rowing back on her comments on social media.
Ms Freeman said ministers would “take the right amount of time” to reach a judgement but would not rule out the toughest measures remaining in place for Christmas, despite Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly stating level four would be lifted next week.
The first minister previously said decisions about what tier areas in the central belt would be moved into, including possibly level two, would be made based on the latest data but insisted level four measures “will be lifted on December 11”.
‘The position has not changed’
Asked on Sunday if some level four areas could remain in that tier, Ms Freeman said: “All options are on the table at this point, as you would expect them to be. That doesn’t mean – people shouldn’t read from that any decision one way or the other.”
The health secretary later said on Twitter that she had misspoke during the interview and that the position “has not changed”.
“The Cabinet will decide on Tuesday what level below four they’ll go into,” she said. “My comments were intended to mean in respect of that decision, all options are on the table.”
Scottish Conservative health spokesman, Donald Cameron, said “mixed messaging and confusion” from Ms Freeman on the issue “helps nobody as they plan to come out of the toughest restrictions”.
“The questions she was asked could not have been clearer,” he said. “These restrictions affect millions of people and they deserve a clear and consistent message from SNP ministers.”
Scottish Labour health spokeswoman Monica Lennon called for “immediate clarity” from the Scottish Government, adding: “This is no way to handle a pandemic”.
Following the health secretary’s clarification, Ms Lennon added: “This is not the time for spin. Jeane Freeman muddled the message and should simply hold her hands up and apologise to those businesses and people living in level four.
“The pandemic is far from over and people in Scotland need clear, consistent and reliable information from the Scottish Government at all times.”