Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 13th July 2021.

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The First Minister:

With the greatest of respect to Anas Sarwar—I will treat all his questions with the greatest of respect—there was quite a lot of glib soundbites in his questions, not a huge amount of substance and, to be frank, a little bit of irresponsibility. I will start with the latter. In Scotland, we take our advice on vaccination from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. In the entire lifetime of this Parliament, no devolved Government has gone against the JCVI’s recommendations on vaccination. The JCVI advice is that, in order to maximise the effectiveness of the vaccine and the longevity of its protection, the interval between the first and second doses should be eight weeks.

If I were to say that, as a politician, I was going to disregard the advice from the statutory organisation that advises the Government on these issues and do something else, I am pretty certain that one of the first people in the queue to criticise me would be Anas Sarwar, along with his colleagues. It would be unthinkable for me to go against the JCVI’s advice.

I understand that the JCVI is looking at that question again. If it were to recommend reducing the dosage interval, nobody—or very few people—would be happier to do that than me. However, on these sensitive matters, in which one of the most important things is to maintain public confidence in vaccines, it is absolutely incumbent on politicians to follow that clinical advice. Any politician asking the Government to act differently is, I am sorry to say, being irresponsible. If the advice changes, the Government’s position will change, but we will prioritise maintaining confidence in the vaccine.

With regard to what I would describe as glib soundbites, such as references to “pandemic proofing” workplaces and schools, of course we want to make places as safe as possible from Covid, but to underplay the complexities and challenges of that does nobody any favours. We need to think carefully, particularly in the light of the changing and developing understanding of the virus. For example, one thing that has become much more apparent in terms of our thinking is the airborne transmission of the virus—although some scientists would say that that was always known. We are now working on what more we can do on ventilation, particularly in places such as schools, hospitals and key workplaces. However, again, we need to ensure that we are not stuck in rigid ways of thinking on these matters and that we are constantly updating and developing our approach. That takes time and it requires the best clinical approach, and we will continue to take that approach. We will issue guidance to schools well in advance of the new term, but we will do that when we have taken proper advice and come to proper decisions.

On testing capacity and vaccine roll-out, I keep being asked these questions—perfectly legitimately—and I will keep answering them as patiently as I possibly can. There is nobody in this country who needs a test who cannot get one. We have extended routine regular testing to the whole population through lateral flow devices. PCR testing levels are very much demand driven. The figures over the past few weeks have been high as case rates have risen. As case rates start to fall, the demand will start to fall, because, thankfully, there will be fewer people with symptoms coming forward for testing.

The pressure on the system, which occurs from time to time, is seen, first, with regard to turnaround times for test results—although those have stood up well—and, secondly, with regard to contact tracing. I have set out already the work that we are doing to ensure that the protect function of the test and protect system is operating as we need it to. That will continue to be a priority.

Lastly, I have covered the question on vaccine roll-out already, in response to questions from Douglas Ross. Vaccine roll-out is not slowing because, somehow, we are not managing to do the vaccine roll-out properly. The constraining factors in the vaccine roll-out are, as I have set out, supply and the dosing interval. We are vaccinating people as quickly as those constraints allow. The vaccination programme is a shining success right now, and it offers us the way out of the pandemic. For that reason, we will continue to do all that we can to accelerate the programme, including—if the JCVI recommends it—shortening the interval between the first and second doses.