Nicola Sturgeon accused of putting UK vaccine programme in jeopardy amid transparency row over deliveries

Harry Yorke
·4-min read
Nicola Sturgeon
Nicola Sturgeon
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..

Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of putting the UK’s vaccination programme in jeopardy after the Scottish Government was forced to retract its jabs delivery plan amid a transparency row.

Scotland’s First Minister on Thursday insisted the deployment schedule had been published on “transparency” grounds, adding that she was “not convinced” that it would have any impact on supply.

Defending the move, she insisted that the plan, which provided official estimates for future deliveries of the vaccine until May, had only been removed because UK ministers had raised concerns about “commercial confidentiality”.

But Whitehall sources have hit back, branding the Scottish Government’s actions “completely irresponsible” and revealing that health officials and ministers had been forced to scramble on Wednesday evening to contain the fallout among vaccine manufacturers.

They also criticised the Scottish health secretary Jeane Freeman, who on Wednesday named a vaccine storage facility while speaking in Holyrood.

The Daily Telegraph understands that amid the fallout, Boris Johnson’s private secretary called Ms Sturgeon’s private secretary on Thursday morning to discuss the controversy.

A UK source said "this reflects how seriously the publication of the figures was being taken", adding: "In that call the Scottish Government admitted it had published them in error."

However, a source close to Ms Sturgeon insisted the call had been to thank the First Minister for hastily taking the document down, adding: “We will act as a responsible government at every stage – and the last thing anyone should be doing is trying to politicise the issue of lifesaving vaccines.”

Global vaccine rollout - Europe
Global vaccine rollout - Europe

The UK delivery schedule and vaccine storage locations have so far been kept secret by the Government, with ministers and officials warning of security risks due to the vaccine being a “valuable commodity.”

There is also concern that disclosure would lead to vaccine manufacturers, such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca, facing a backlash from other countries who have not secured as good a deal as the UK.

During a UK-wide call recently, leaders of the three devolved administrations were urged to keep details of vaccine supplies to their countries secret, with officials warning of the risk that an international backlash opened up the risk of future supplies being diverted.

But on Wednesday evening the Scottish Government published a deployment plan online, from which it was possible to estimate approximately how many doses are being readied for distribution across the UK this month. It also provided rough estimates all the way up to May.

The document has now been retracted, with the Scottish Government publishing a new version on Thursday evening which omitted sensitive supply figures, but insiders have warned that the “damage has already been done.”

Following the publication, The Daily Telegraph understands that Department for Health officials and members of the vaccine task force held emergency talks to discuss their response.

In a bid to reassure vaccine manufacturers, Nadhim Zahawi, the minister in charge of the rollout, is also understood to have contacted Pascal Soriot, the chief executive of AstraZeneca.

A Government source said: “There are security concerns. It’s a highly valuable commodity. Officials in the taskforce and DH were on a huge mission last night to reassure manufacturers and suppliers.

“Hopefully people understand the reason why we can’t do this. It’s a security concern but also there is a need to protect suppliers who will be under pressure from other countries due to the sheer volume we have in this country.”

Speaking at her daily Covid briefing, Ms Sturgeon said: "We published a vaccine deployment plan yesterday, of which a lot of detail has been temporarily taken off the website.

"We were seeking to be and think it is important to be very transparent around all aspects of this, to be clear on the targets we are setting for the numbers of people vaccinated, then to get people as much assurance as we can, subject all the caveats that we still have to put in place about the supply flows that we're expecting.

"But the UK Government's got some commercial confidentiality concerns about that so we're having a discussion with them about what can be published."

Pressed on whether the disclosure would lead to other countries putting pressure on vaccine manufacturers to divert more doses away from the UK, she said: "I'm not convinced of that.

"The UK Government have been talking for a long time about the supplies that they have managed to secure so these are estimates of the supplies have been secured.”

The Scottish Government has also defended Ms Freeman’s naming of the vaccine storage facility, with a spokesman stating that the location was "already in the public domain" and the name of the distribution agent was also "widely known".

However, Donald Cameron MSP, the Scottish Conservative health spokesman, said: "Yesterday, the health secretary revealed a secret location that Scottish Government officials wanted to keep confidential.

“Now, they've had to pull a whole vaccination plan out of sheer incompetence. These mistakes potentially endanger supplies and risk impacting the rollout of the vaccine.”