10.12.20


In case it’s of interest, I can confirm that I would be prepared to receive the Pfizer vaccine live on Radio Orkney. My only pre-condition for this selfless act of leadership in the fight against Covid is that the vaccine be administered by a medical professional and not left to Dave Gray, or even Helen Foulis, notwithstanding her undoubted expertise in dealing with sick horses.

There is, of course, a serious question to be asked about how this and future vaccines are to be rolled out and on the basis of what priority, both within and between different populations. But let us first take a moment to wonder at the scientific achievement in getting to this point in such a short space of time. It’s an heroic feat for which we can all be profoundly grateful, if also a little in awe.

It is not, though, as some frankly ludicrous UK Conservative ministers have claimed, either a Brexit ‘dividend’ or a triumph of British ingenuity. Yes, our scientists have been pivotal, but the development of this and other vaccines has been a remarkable, collaborative effort across the international scientific community, ably supported by those who volunteered to take part in trials. The cretinous jingoism displayed by some in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet only succeeded in inviting ridicule at a moment that should have been about celebrating what can be achieved through genuine collaboration.

As impressive as the scientific achievement undoubtedly has been, however, it must now be matched by a similar effort on the public health side. This will throw up logistical and communications challenges of a kind rarely before seen in peacetime.

In fact, the Pfizer vaccine has provided a small foretaste, given the demands of storage at ultra-low temperatures. These initial obstacles, however, appear to have been overcome to the point where the Health Secretary was able to assure me last week that islanders will have access to the vaccine on the same basis as the rest of the country during the first and subsequent waves of the roll out programme.

The scale and complexity of the overall undertaking, however, cannot be overstated. It has led to concerns being voiced about the ability of the Public Health Minister, Joe Fitzpatrick to deliver. Communications are not Mr Fitzpatrick’s strong suit and his calamitous performance in parliament last week, when responding to an urgent question on the issue, did little to instil confidence. SNP colleagues present in the Chamber struggled to disguise their embarrassment.

Such misgivings are only reinforced by the less than flawless delivery of this year’s flu vaccination programme, following earlier problems in providing PPE and scaling up testing. Mr Fitzpatrick is a minister under pressure, in the spotlight and, by the admission of even some in his own party, out of his depth.

That is a worry, and not just for the First Minister. Already sizeable numbers of people insist they will refuse vaccination. The answer to this is not, as some have suggested, to make it mandatory. Nor is it to introduce ‘immunity passports’ which would prevent access to services or venues without proof of vaccination. However superficially attractive, these approaches are both impractical and counter-productive in building the public confidence necessary, particularly within communities traditionally more resistant to such programmes.

Other vaccines are on their way, of course, and these may yet prove to be more appropriate in some circumstances or for some people. Meantime, the proposed prioritisation within the first wave of the roll out seems broadly sensible, though Ministers will need to be crystal clear about timeframes so that public expectations are managed. Close coordination and cooperation between governments across the UK will be more crucial than ever, not least when it comes to communicating the benefits of vaccination. And local health boards must be properly resourced to manage delivery on the ground.

Difficult months still lie ahead and further sacrifices will have to be made, but there does now appear to be light at the end of the tunnel as we head towards Christmas. Here’s to a new year with new hope, if not a ceremonial vaccination on Radio Orkney’s Friday Night Request Programme.


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