British Army starts vaccinating Scots amid row over slow roll-out

Simon Johnson
·7-min read
A member of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard carries in supplies at the P&J Live mass vaccination centre in Aberdeen - PA
A member of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard carries in supplies at the P&J Live mass vaccination centre in Aberdeen - PA

The British Army will on Thursday start vaccinating people in Scotland for the first time after Nicola Sturgeon insisted "nothing is going wrong" with her slow roll-out.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said a further 81 military personnel had been deployed across the country, bringing the total number of servicemen helping the programme to more than 200.

Fifty-seven medics and management staff will make up a Vaccine Quick Reaction Force, which will see five teams of 10 ready to deploy across Scotland at short notice to assist NHS staff in delivering the vaccine.

Teams will start deploying from Thursday, with some beginning to see patients immediately, including supporting Lothian health board by administering vaccinations at the Royal Highland Showground.

A further 24 logistic support staff, mostly from Edinburgh-based 3rd Battalion The Rifles, will assist health boards with vaccination centres in Grampian, Dumfries and Galloway, Borders and Lothian.

Baroness Goldie, a Defence Minister and former Scottish Tory leader, said the additional servicemen will provide "surge support where it is most needed" to accelerate the roll-out.

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But the announcement came shortly after Ms Sturgeon said support from the Armed Forces should not be seen as a "favour" from the UK Government as they are partly funded by Scottish taxpayers.

Despite Scotland having the slowest roll-out of any of the home nations, she told First Minister's Questions that the programme was "going well" and announced a daily record of 38,484 jabs were administered on Tuesday.

She said her government had gone slower as it had "followed an approach that very deliberately concentrated on getting the most clinically vulnerable groups vaccinated first, and achieving as high an uptake in these groups as possible."

However, this was undermined by official figures showing Scotland still behind England on vaccinating the over-80s, who are scheduled to be completed tomorrow (fri), and way off the English pace on the over-75s.

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Ms Sturgeon said 28 per cent of Scots in the latter group had been treated, but the figure the previous day for England was around 85 per cent. Matt Hancock announced that 10 million people across the UK had now received a jab, but Scotland accounted for only 649,262 of the total.

Almost one in five of the adult population in England (19.6 per cent) have now had a jab compared to 18.3 per cent in Wales, 17 per cent in Northern Ireland and 14.6 per cent in Scotland.

Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tories' Holyrood leader, said the First Minister "went into denial mode again" only 24 hours after her Health Secretary admitted the roll-out had to speed up.

She said the additional servicemen and women were "exactly the kind of shot in the arm the programme needs and it will go a long way to restoring confidence across the country."

However, she was barracked by the SNP benches at Holyrood when she highlighted an offer by Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, of UK Government support to speed up the programme.

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Dr John Montgomery said SNP ministers had so far ignored requests from the British Medical Association's Scottish GP committee to allow doctors to bypass health boards and order their supplies directly.The row intensified as the head of the south Glasgow GP committee, which includes Ms Sturgeon's constituency, yesterday said family doctors' "overriding sense is one of frustration" as they are still not getting the vaccine supplies they need.

He told a BBC Scotland radio phone-in the current system was a "major roadblock for us" and warned "we've probably missed the boat" to change it. Several callers to the programme said they were over 80 but had not received their jab, or been invited for one.

The roll-out has picked up pace after mass vaccination centres - set up with the help of the Armed Forces - finally opened in Edinburgh and Aberdeen on Monday.

A total of 98 personnel, mainly from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, were deployed last month to establish 80 new hubs. A further 32 planning and support personnel are supporting the Scottish Government and local health boards.

The Scottish Government confirmed that it made a request for additional help on Jan 23 on behalf of NHS boards.

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Unveiling the latest deployment, Mr Jack said: "The British Armed Forces are carrying out vital work to support the rollout of vaccines across Scotland. Now more than 200 military personnel are helping to get needles into arms."

Nadhim Zahawi, the UK's Covid Vaccine Deployment Minister, said: "The pace and progress of our rollout shows the strength of our Union and how much we can achieve by pulling together as one United Kingdom.”

The military has been involved in supporting Scotland’s response to the COVID pandemic since March 2020, providing planners, logistics specialists and aircraft medical evacuation capability, as well as the delivery of a Mobile Testing Unit service throughout last summer.

Ms Sturgeon yesterday thanked them for their efforts but added: "Any help the armed forces give to Scotland… is not a favour from the Secretary of State for Scotland.

“It is our Armed Forces that the people of Scotland pay for through their taxes.”

Questioned by Labour's Jackie Baillie why some people over 70 had still not received their appointment letters, she said "nothing is going wrong" and they would be sent this week.

Ms Davidson said: "We always knew the number of vaccinations would rise when mass centres opened and we're all delighted to see that's finally happening.

"Problems haven't vanished overnight, though, and the First Minister went into denial mode again today."

Boris Johnson greeted soldiers at a vaccination site they had helped set up in Castlemilk, Glasgow during his visit to Scotland last week.

They are also currently working at the Lagoon Centre in Paisley and Donald Dewar Sports Centre in Drumchapel, Glasgow.

It is understood that the UK Government last week signed off the SNP's Military Assistance to Civilian Authorities (MACA) request for more help.

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But the Army will start vaccinating Scots only three days after Philppa Whitford, the SNP's Health spokesman at Westminster, told the BBC: "We don't need soldiers vaccinating. There's no shortage in any of our health boards of vaccinators."

Ms Baillie, Scottish Labour's interim leader, highlighted huge regional disparities within Scotland of vaccination levels amid concerns of a postcode lottery.

She said: "Our vaccine rollout is much slower than England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The First Minister quite rightly says it is not a competition between nations but I have to say to her it is a race against the virus and we are not going fast enough."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: We have had arrangements in place throughout the pandemic to draw flexibly on additional military resource, and we keep this under active review alongside the Ministry of Defence.

"These teams will be in place for an interim period to begin immediate vaccination on-site until the centres can be handed over to Boards. The armed forces are also supporting NHS vaccination planning activity, at a national and local level, and we are grateful for their support.”

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