Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 15th December 2020.

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The First Minister:

Regarding the first question, when vulnerable people in care homes or in other settings cannot consent to the vaccine, the normal arrangements for powers of attorney and for adults with incapacity apply. It might be helpful if I ask clinical advisers to set that out in writing for members and to place that information in the Scottish Parliament information centre so that, if members are contacted by constituents or their families, they will have that information to hand.

By way of assurance, I advise that those issues are taken into account every year with the roll-out of the flu vaccine and other vaccination programmes or health interventions.

On the new strain of the virus, it is important to say that we must take it seriously, but it is equally important to say that none of us should prematurely overreact. The briefing that I had yesterday from the Chief Medical Officer, which was supplemented later yesterday and today with the latest information that we have from genomic sequencing work in Scotland, is, as I set out in my statement, that nine cases of the new variant have been identified in Scotland thus far. As far as I am aware right now, those date back to the latter part of November and into December, but we are still awaiting information on the time series of those cases and whether there are any connections between them, as sell as any other information that the researchers and scientists consider to be relevant.

It is important to say that none of what is currently known about the new variant is absolutely certain. The briefing that I have had, which I think has been replicated in the information given by the UK Government, is that—this is an important reassurance—there is nothing to suggest that the new variant results in more severe illness in people. There has been a suggestion from initial analysis that the variant of the virus might transmit more effectively and quickly than existing variants, but it is important to say again that that is not yet certain. It might be instead that the variant has been identified in parts of the country—in England that is London and the south-east, and in Scotland it is Greater Glasgow and Clyde—where the virus is already spreading more rapidly, which is giving the impression that the new variant is faster at spreading.

It will take further analysis to answer those questions more definitively. I am not going to try, from a non-clinical perspective, to set out exactly how that analysis is done, but samples of the new variant are being further analysed. They have to be cultured, then analysed and compared to others. That work is being taken forward through Public Health England. It is hoped that we will get more information over the coming days and—I would hope—before Christmas. When we do, I will, of course, set that out to Parliament.