Vaccine rollout will be key test for Sturgeon

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for week beginning November 23, 2020. Subjects include delivery of the Covid-19 vaccine, Jeremy Corbyn’s future in the Labour Party, and Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in Netflix’s The Crown.

It has been a glum year but news of impending Covid-19 vaccines brings a glimmer of hope. There is the Pfizer vaccine, BNT162b2, of which the UK Government has purchased 40 million doses, and AZD7442, the antibody treatment which manufacturer AstraZeneca says can keep Covid at bay for 12 months. Whitehall plans to buy one million units of the latter if it passes the next phase of trials. In all, ministers have pre-ordered more than 355 million doses of seven potential vaccines, including 100 million of the Oxford vaccine.

After eight months of lockdowns, travel bans, business closures and job losses, there is a chance that our lives could begin to go back to normal by Summer. I am by temperament a cheerful pessimist but even I have been feeling more of the former than the latter lately. 

The rub, however, is that securing a vaccine is one thing, successfully administering it is another. Provided one is approved in time, the Scottish Government intends to start inoculating people from early December, with priority given to medics, care workers, over-80s and those in residential homes. Absent any hiccoughs, all Scots over 18 should be vaccinated by next Summer, which is broadly in line with the timescale set out for England, although there are hopes jabs there can be completed by Spring. These seem decidedly optimistic timescales but they are at least a beginning. 

Getting the vaccine to everyone who wants it will require an operation of uncommon scale, precision and speed. There will be no room for error, particularly if the drug is being delivered in the middle of a difficult winter flu season. 

That is where my concerns begin. This Scottish government doesn’t have an encouraging track record when it comes to delivering the annual vaccine. The memory of the 2018 enhanced flu jab debacle still lingers, not least how it exposed an underprepared and poorly coordinated health bureaucracy. 

Even this year’s flu vaccination programme has not been without its faults. Because of coronavirus, it is being administered by health boards, rather than by GP surgeries, and I know almost no one who has managed to get the jab without some hassle or snafu. 

One elderly relative turned up at their appointed time only to find themselves with a long wait in a queue of strangers whose Covid status they couldn’t know. Another was sent back home unvaccinated because of a recently prescribed medication and told to return a week later. Since doing so, she has received two letters from a health board convinced she has not received the jab — the same health board that gave her it weeks ago. Minor inconveniences, perhaps, but hints at the strains even this routine system is under. 

A Covid vaccination programme will throw up its own hurdles. The Pfizer drug, for instance, needs to be stored at negative 70 degrees Celsius, plus or minus ten degrees. The Scottish Government has purchased 20 special refrigeration units to house the medicine but once it is removed from the recommended storage climate, it can only be kept at normal refrigeration levels (between two and eight degrees) for five days. That makes transportation a logistical headache. 

Ministers believe the answer is central administration of the drug. Yet this poses a quandary for covering rural Scotland. Do you try to provide the vaccine to as many people as possible in the Highlands and Islands while accepting that a certain quantity could be spoiled in the process? Or do you use BNT162b2 in towns and cities and the preventative AZD7442 in more rural parts of the country until another, less temperature-dependent option (such as AstraZeneca’s other trial drug, the ‘Oxford vaccine’) becomes available? 

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be having a hard time keeping track of all these strange alphanumerical pile-ups — BNT162b2, AZD7442 — which sound like newly-discovered galaxies on Star Trek. This is another consideration that ministers and health boards will have to bear in mind: securing public buy-in to a vaccine means talking about it in terms the public understands. Last May I wrote about the threat of the ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement, a conspiracy theory typically spread through social media that falsely claims safe and approved vaccines are injurious to health. At the time, NHS England was raising the alarm about the threat these paranoid fantasies posed to public health and I argued that we should be taking the matter just as seriously in Scotland, though I never imagined we would be tested so soon and in such a fashion. 

There is an important ethical debate about whether vaccines should be compulsory in certain circumstances but our immediate focus must be on giving the public as much confidence as possible to drive down the number of potential refusers. Politicians and clinicians will have to speak honestly, clearly and simply to allay legitimate fears and ensure they are not preyed upon by internet cranks. 

Understanding ordinary people’s concerns doesn’t extend only to the safety of new vaccines. It is also about appreciating all the little potholes of life which can suddenly trip up even the most thoroughly planned vaccination programme. Travelling to a central location at a given time is much easier if you live in a city, own a car and have support structures in place to help you out. 

How many MSPs, ministers and civil servants live in remote communities? How many do not own a car and must rely on buses? How many have no access to childcare if they had to take an elderly relative for vaccination? How many work rigid shifts for exacting bosses and would worry about blotting their copybook by asking for an afternoon off to go get a jab? Most politicians and bureaucrats are fortunate enough never to have to worry about transport, babysitter money or unreasonable employers, but they should stop to factor in these realities in their planning. 

Remember all that sunny talk about smartphones and how they were vital tools in a modern pandemic? Not only did they give easy access to the Test and Protect app, they allowed us to summon a digital GP appointment with the poke of a button and order a socially distanced food shop with a simple swipe. All useful functions for the 95 per cent of 16-to-24-year-olds who own a smartphone, but what of the 49 per cent of over-55s who do not, or the more than one-third of those on the lowest income levels who are without these gadgets? 

We talk about a digital divide in this country but the real divide is often between the decision-makers, drawn from a narrow pool of life experience, and those governed by their decisions, whose live varied lives the complexities of which the decision-makers are unaware. A Covid-19 vaccine programme is too important to be hindered by insular bubble-think. 

The First Minister is said to have had a good pandemic, but vaccinating more than four million Scottish adults will be the first real test of her government’s management of coronavirus. She is wholly in charge of what happens next and cannot blame big bad Westminster if she falters, though she will doubtless still try. Nicola Sturgeon talks a good input game. Now she has to deliver results. 

*****

Like Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian exile who lived in Charles de Gaulle Airport for 18 years after no other country would grant him entry, Jeremy Corbyn finds himself politically homeless. His suspension lifted, he is once again a Labour member, but not a Labour MP, because Sir Keir Starmer refuses to reinstate the whip. As such, the lefty loser is both in and out of Labour at the same time — Schrödinger’s prat. 

This has dragged on long enough. Corbyn was the worst leader in Labour’s history, led it to its lowest ebb since 1935 and oversaw a shameful breakdown in relations with Britain’s Jewish community. Every day he remains even half-in Labour is another day of weakness and cowardice on Sir Keir’s part. If he wants to be Prime Minister, he is going to have to get much more ruthless. Kick Corbyn out — fully and for good — and start to rebuild the trust with the country that his predecessor frittered away.

*****

Gillian Anderson is magisterial as Margaret Thatcher in Netflix’s The Crown. Critics are hailing her replication of the Iron Lady’s voice, style and mannerisms but I was impressed by the uncanny shuffling gait as she burrowed past generals and palace equerries to give Cabinet ministers and even the Queen a handbagging. There is no alternative: Anderson must win the BAFTA. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

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