Care home residents in Scotland will receive the Pfizer Covid vaccine from December 14, the Health Secretary has announced amid growing confusion over the roll-out's timetable and the number of doses available.
With the first shipment arriving in Britain on Thursday night, Jeane Freeman told MSPs it had now been confirmed the vaccine could be transported in an unfrozen state for up to 12 hours.
It can also be broken down into smaller pack sizes and stored undiluted for up to five days, she said, meaning it can be taken into care homes.
Her disclosure appeared to allay concerns that residents too infirm to leave their care home and attend a vaccination hub would not be given the jab, despite being in the top priority group.
But Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers group of English health trusts, warned that an initial 800,000 doses "could be the only batch we receive for some time" even though Britain was expecting 10 million shots by the end of the year.
14/18 Third, they’ll see if they can vaccinate care home residents. This won’t be easy though. Working assumption is we’ll have to wait for @MHRAgovuk authorisation of box splitting and primary care distribution for mass coverage of care home resident population.
— Chris Hopson (@ChrisCEOHopson) December 3, 2020
Further confusion was sown when Ms Freeman and Nicola Sturgeon appeared to contradict each other over whether the roll-out would be completed next spring or summer.
Ms Sturgeon told First Minister's Questions that "we very much hope" all 4.4 million adults in Scotland would receive the vaccine by the spring, echoing the timetable Ms Freeman told parliament last month.
However, less than three hours later Ms Freeman told MSPs that only the first wave of the vaccination programme, involving high priority groups, would be completed by spring. She added: "The rest of the population will follow as quickly as possible thereafter."
It appeared that the timetable had been changed at the last minute as a written version of her statement said the first phase would be completed "between now and February."
Professor Jason Leitch, Scotland's national clinical director, also suggested there had been slippage in the spring deadline by stating that by next summer Scotland would be in the process of vaccinating "less risky" people.
He told Holyrood's Covid-19 committee he thought Scots "will be going on holiday next summer", but the annual getaway may not be normal and "I certainly wouldn't book anything you can't cancel."
As I asked the FM about today at FMQs, to no answer... https://t.co/q43F28GdSh
— Ruth Davidson (@RuthDavidsonMSP) December 3, 2020
Holyrood's opposition parties demanded clarity over the vaccine roll-out's timetable and distribution.
Donald Cameron, the Scottish Tories' Shadow Health Secretary, said: "In the space of 24 hours, SNP ministers have shifted back and forth between spring or later than that.
"The public needs to understand what is going on, so again we're asking that they explain which one is correct because it can't be both."
In a statement to the Scottish Parliament, Ms Freeman said 65,500 doses will arrive in Scotland - a population share of the first batch secured by the UK Government.
She said 160 vaccinators will be given the vaccine first on Tuesday, before they start injecting others.
The next in line are care home residents and staff, everyone aged 80 and over and frontline NHS and social care workers.
Half the initial doses will be held back as recipients require a second jab three or four weeks after the first. Full protection does not kick in for a further seven days.
The Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept at -70C and will initially be stored in packs of 997 doses in 23 specialist freezers around Scotland.
However, Ms Freeman refused to disclose their precise location, saying that MI5 was "very unsure about the wisdom of making public where our storage is for what is a very precious vaccine indeed."
She said the storage low temperature posed "particular logistical challenges" when vaccinating people at or close to their homes.
But she said that discussions over lunchtime had ascertained that the vaccine could be transported unfrozen and in smaller pack sizes, making it "more usable with minimum wastage for care home residents and for our older citizens."
She said: "So in effect, we can take the vaccine to them or close to them. And we will begin that exercise from December 14."
NHS England insisted they must await the approval of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) for the batches to be split. However, The Telegraph understands this was already in place.
Ms Freeman also said the Scottish Government is "on track" to recruit 2,000 vaccinators and support staff by the end of January.
Although pregnant women should not take the vaccine, she said 16 and 17-year-olds with underlying health conditions had been added to the list following a request from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.
But she backtracked on her previous commitment that the entire programme would be completed by spring, saying that only the "first phase" would be vaccinated at that point.
Earlier, Prof Leitch said: "By the summer we will know a lot more. We will hopefully, with a fair wind, have vaccinated the vast majority of the at-risk community and we will be into less risky communities by then."
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tories' Holyrood leader, said: "It's vital that not only short-term but long-term plans are in place, and the public need to know if the intention is to finish vaccination by spring - or much later."
Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said: "Ministers need to be honest with the public and it's important that government communication is crystal clear going forward.”
Robert Kilgour, chief executive of the Renaissance Care group of care homes, said it was "a great early Christmas present" that the vaccine could be brought to residents.
"I'm also pleased to confirm that under certain conditions, we can pack down to smaller pack sizes, both of which makes this vaccine more usable with minimum wastage for care home residents and for our older citizens.
"So in effect, we can take the vaccine to them or close to them. And we will begin that exercise from Dec 14."