Scotland’s lockdown will continue until “at least the middle of February”, Nicola Sturgeon has told the Scottish parliament, with no definite date for a full return to schools and nurseries.
The current level 4 restrictions, which have been in place since Boxing Day and include a “stay at home” message in law, were extended following a meeting of the Scottish cabinet on Tuesday morning.
Scotland’s first minister acknowledged how “difficult, distressing and damaging” the ongoing disruption to early years care and schooling has been, but added that her cabinet’s “reluctant judgment” was that community transmission of the virus is too high to allow a safe return to education settings until mid-February “at the earliest”. She told parents that this date remained under review.
Sturgeon said that there was some evidence that restrictions are beginning to have an impact on transmission rates, even of the faster-spreading variant, but that these emerging trends needed to continue before any relaxation of lockdown could be considered.
Sturgeon was also challenged by opposition leaders about the slower pace of Scotland’s vaccine distribution. The country is understood to have received more than 700,000 doses to date, and – according to comparable figures up to Monday – vaccinated 264,991 people with first doses, around 6% of the adult population, while England has reached 8%, Wales 6% and Northern Ireland 8.7%.
Earlier on Tuesday, the chair of BMA Scotland’s GP committee, Andrew Buist, said that patients were becoming increasingly anxious and practices frustrated at the patchy nature of the rollout. He told BBC Radio Scotland: “The workforce is there and that’s why it is so incredibly frustrating when the patients want the vaccine, we are very keen to give it to our patients, but we just don’t have the vaccine in our fridge.”
Sturgeon told MSPs that the reason why Scotland’s figures were overall lower than England’s is because her government had decided to focus first on the more time consuming and labour intensive vaccination of elderly care home residents, more than 90% of whom have now been inoculated – a much higher proportion than in England.
The Scottish Conservative’s Holyrood leader, Ruth Davidson, asked Sturgeon to explain why it seemed that 400,000 doses of the vaccine had yet to reach GP practices.
Sturgeon countered that the Westminster government was “briefing and spinning misleading figures on supply” and that her own government was prevented from being transparent about such figures by UK ministers last week.
She said: “We are now picking up pace with the over-80s. We are not behind our targets.”
This includes offering the first dose to all care home residents and over-80s by the start of February, extending to all over-70s, and all those who are clinically extremely vulnerable, by the middle of that month.
The Welsh first minster was also challenged on the pace of distribution on Tuesday. Mark Drakeford was forced to repeatedly deny that his government was operating what opposition politicians have claimed is a “go slow” rollout.
Drakeford promised seven out of 10 care home residents and people aged over 80 would have received their first doses by the end of the week. He said that Wales remained on course to meet its target of vaccinating all members of the top four priority groups by mid-February.
Wales continues to face criticism for lagging behind England and Northern Ireland in the pace of its vaccination programme, but Drakeford said: “The race we are in is the race with the virus, between infection and injection, not a race with other countries.”
However, Drakeford warned that there was a “fragility” in the supply chain for both the Pfizer and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines. He flagged up production issues at a Pfizer plant in Belgium and the loss of a batch of 26,000 Oxford doses earmarked for Wales that did not arrive this week because of a problem with the batch.