Scottish Government forced to apologise to vaccine manufacturers over deployment plan fiasco

Ministers were forced to write letters of apology to the managing directors of Pfizer and AstraZeneca after publishing commercially sensitive information around Covid-19 vaccine supply, The Scotsman can reveal.

The letters were sent after concerns were raised by the UK Government that expected vaccine supply data included in the plan had breached commercial confidentiality agreements with the manufacturers.

The vaccine deployment plan was subsequently removed from the Scottish Government website before the offending tables and charts were removed and the document reuploaded later on January 14, one day after its initial publication.

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Vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and AstraZeneca received apology letters following a Scottish Government blunder around its vaccination deployment plan.

Nicola Sturgeon said she was not “convinced” by the arguments put forward by the UK Government, later describing Boris Johnson’s government of having thrown a “hissy fit” over the publication as a briefing war around the number of vaccines being supplied to the Scottish Government erupted.

However, the then-health secretary Jeane Freeman apologised for the blunder and said she regretted the mistake.

The Scottish Conservatives said the latest revelations showed the First Minister was forced to issue a “grovelling apology” despite downplaying the issue and criticised the SNP’s “silly and immature political games”.

Scottish Labour added the letters show “just how serious the mistake was”.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “As we said at the time, after removing data following concerns over its inclusion, we contacted both suppliers as a courtesy and have maintained a positive relationship throughout the vaccine programme.

“We also continued to work with the UK Government to ensure as much transparency as possible, resulting in a four nations agreement to publish aggregate figures on vaccines allocated and delivered on a weekly basis, with manufacturers’ consent.”

The fiasco began on the same day Ms Freeman gave the location of a previously secret vaccine storage location in Holyrood when answering questions from MSPs.

Later that day, following three days of non-stop work from civil servants after they were commissioned to produce the vaccine deployment plan on Sunday, January 10 for a Wednesday, January 13 publication date, the document was published.

It included detailed breakdowns of received and future supplies of the AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines despite that information being classified as “official, commercial, sensitive” by the UK Government.

However, any potential confidentiality breach was not spotted by civil servants despite Caroline Lamb, NHS Scotland chief executive, questioning the accuracy of the supply data that was set to be published.

Neither were concerns raised by the First Minister, who had sight of the plan late on Tuesday, January 12 after it had been signed off by Ms Freeman.

One civil servant wrote: “Whoohoo thank you all for what has been a huge piece of work you should all be proud of.”

However, it can be revealed that within an hour of the first version of the vaccine deployment plan being published by the Scottish Government, civil servants within Whitehall were raising concerns that journalists were using the document to extrapolate UK-wide supply figures and questioning whether the UK Government would release similar information.

One member of the UK Government’s Vaccines Taskforce sent an email to Derek Grieve, the Scottish Government’s interim head of its vaccines division, within three hours of the document’s publication stating it was “extremely unhelpful and problematic”.

Responding to the concerns, Mr Grieve claimed the classification of the data was not “clearly visible”, but apologised for the error.

Within hours, apology letters were privately sent to the vaccine suppliers – a detail not made public by the Scottish Government at the time of the mistake.

Correspondence was kept secret for four months after Scottish Government officials delayed responding to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request until early June, three months late and after the Holyrood election in May.

Officials initially claimed it would cost too much money to disclose due to the existence of more than 5,000 documents, but the email chains can now be released after this decision was overturned following an internal review.

Reacting, the Scottish Conservatives’ health spokesperson Annie Wells criticised the Scottish Government for downplaying the error as a “trivial mistake” despite the apology letters.

She said: “This FOI reveals that the SNP had to issue a grovelling apology for something they downplayed as a trivial mistake.

“Nicola Sturgeon even got up on her high horse in the Scottish Parliament on this issue and claimed the UK Government were throwing a hissy fit, only for the SNP Government to privately say sorry to the manufacturers for making such a harmful error.

“This exposes the kind of silly and immature political games that the First Minster is willing to play with something as serious as the Covid vaccine.

“Nicola Sturgeon will do whatever it takes to provoke a grievance with the UK Government, even when it’s completely out of order to do so, as this shows. Her own government blundered and she tried to hide that by creating a fight out of thin air.”

Scottish Labour’s depute leader and health spokesperson Jackie Baillie said the fiasco “sums up the SNP’s record”.

She said: “These revelations expose just how serious this mistake was – despite the First Minister’s dismissive comments at the time.

“This debacle sums up the SNP’s record in government – not only making basic errors, but going out of their way to try and keep information about them from the public.

“This combination of incompetence and secrecy is nothing new, but it in the midst of a pandemic it is especially inexcusable.”

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