SNP Health Secretary apologises to Matt Hancock for publishing sensitive vaccine supply figures

Simon Johnson
·5-min read
Scottish Health Secretary Jeane Freeman has apologised to Matt Hancock - Reuters
Scottish Health Secretary Jeane Freeman has apologised to Matt Hancock - Reuters

The SNP's Health Secretary has apologised to Matt Hancock for publishing confidential vaccine supply figures amid intense Government fury the disclosure risked doses being diverted from the UK to other countries.

Jeane Freeman said she regretted the Scottish Government publishing the detailed figures for weekly supplies, broken down by manufacturer, in its latest vaccine deployment blueprint.

The Prime Minister and Mr Hancock are concerned that the disclosure will lead to vaccine manufacturers coming under pressure to give doses destined for the UK to other countries who have not secured such a good deal.

Ms Freeman said she had apologised directly to Mr Hancock, the UK Health Secretary, and her counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland for the "mistake" and noted the sensitive figures had been removed from the plan. However, they remained widely available on the internet.

Her disclosure came only a day after an unrepentant Nicola Sturgeon said she was "not convinced" that publication of the figures on "transparency" grounds had jeopardised the UK's vaccine supplies.

But Ms Freeman was last night facing an inquiry into whether she broke the ministerial code of conduct over the gaffe, and a separate incident in which she disclosed the sensitive location of a vaccine storage centre.

The Scottish Tories wrote to the First Minister asking her to investigate Ms Freeman under a section of the code stating ministers must respect the "confidentiality and security" of government business.

They also raised concerns that progress on the vaccine roll-out in Scotland has "stalled" after 16,633 first doses were administered on Thursday, a very small rise on the daily totals recorded the previous two days.

Donald Cameron, the Scottish Tories' Shadow Health Secretary, said the SNP were around 3,000 per day short of the amount required to reach their target of vaccinating 560,000 people by the end of this month.

In comparison, 274,793 people were given their first dose in England on Thursday - 16.5 times more than in Scotland despite it only having around 10 times the population.

Ms Sturgeon this week insisted that Scotland was not falling behind England, which has already opened seven mass vaccination centres. She said "healthy" cross-Border competition could speed up the roll-out across the UK.

Jeane Freeman apologised to Matt Hancock for disclosing sensitive vaccine data - Anadolu
Jeane Freeman apologised to Matt Hancock for disclosing sensitive vaccine data - Anadolu

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

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 was taken down, but insiders warned that the “damage has already been done.”

The Telegraph disclosed 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.

Boris Johnson’s private secretary called Ms Sturgeon’s private secretary on Thursday morning to discuss the controversy. However, she later told her Covid briefing that the UK Government's concerns were about "commercial confidentiality."

Nicola Sturgeon is to investigate whether Jeane Freeman broke the ministerial code -  Getty Images Europe
Nicola Sturgeon is to investigate whether Jeane Freeman broke the ministerial code - Getty Images Europe

Speaking 24 hours later, at yesterday's briefing, Ms Freeman said: "There was no malicious intent in this. It was an error, mistake, I of course am accountable for that.

"But it was done with the intention of being as transparent and open with the public about the information we hold in order to explain to them how we are going to roll-out what is an absolutely critical vaccination programme."

She added: "We've apologised for that. I've apologised directly to the Secretary of State for Health in the UK. I spoke to him yesterday, and we move on, in order to focus on the really important work, which is rolling out that vaccination programme."

Ms Freeman said it would be for Ms Sturgeon to decide whether she had broken the ministerial code.

The Health Secretary added: "She added: "I am absolutely confident that she will take any such assertion very seriously and look at it in some detail and make up her mind on that."

But Mr Cameron said: "There is a clear case that the ministerial code may have been broken by the failure to properly respect the confidentiality of sensitive information.

"The SNP Government itself has admitted they got this wrong. They asked journalists not to report a secret location, the Covid plan was removed within hours and the First Minister acknowledged the flaws in publishing restricted supply figures."

He added: "These are not mere day-to-day gaffes, they are serious lapses of judgment. Repeated mistakes like this cannot be overlooked when so much is at stake."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "We also take security very seriously, that is why we amended the vaccine plan, taking out sensitive information as soon as we were made aware of the issue.

“The First Minister will respond to Mr Cameron in due course.”