Scottish vaccine centres bill kept 'secret' by SNP and health boards

The SNP and several health boards have been accused of “secrecy” over their failure to disclose the cost to the taxpayer of hiring venues to be used as vaccination centres.

The cost of hiring venues for vaccination centres has been kept secret by the Scottish Government.

Venues being used across Scotland include shopping centres, conference centres and village halls, with many charging for the privilege. However, any estimate of the total cost has not been disclosed by the Scottish Government

The vaccination programme is viewed as central to Scotland’s hopes of reopening the economy, but politicians have criticised the secrecy around the figures from the Scottish Government and health boards.

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The secrecy has led to politicians calling for “transparent government”, with the Scottish Liberal Democrats criticising the SNP for having a “default setting of secrecy”.

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The vast majority of non-NHS vaccination centres are owned or run by health boards, local authorities or are ultimately owned by councils such as the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, the SSE Hydro and the P&J Live Arena.

However, costs of hiring the venues could include additional costs for staffing and security for the venues organised by the venue itself, which would also be picked up by the Scottish Government.

In response to a Freedom of Information request asking for a list of vaccination centres being paid for and the cost to the public purse, the Scottish Government said it did not hold the information as it was continuing to work with health boards and councils.

Some health boards responded with figures for their vaccination centres, while others claimed “commercial confidentiality”, with another citing “security reasons” meant they were unable to disclose the information.

Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, said the cost of the vaccination centres were worth the outlay, but he did not understand the secrecy around figures.

He said: “Scottish Liberal Democrats have consistently called for a national effort to speed up vaccination efforts. If that means spending money to secure the right premises, then so be it. We will more than recoup the costs if it allows us to open up in a safe fashion more quickly.

"What is troubling is that the SNP's default setting is secrecy. I don't see what grounds there could possibly be for not letting the public know what the facilities they are paying for are costing.

"Scottish Liberal Democrats want to introduce a duty to record and strengthen FOI rights to prevent governments and public services from hiding from scrutiny."

In total, at least £13.5 million has been or will be spent on vaccination centres by the Scottish Government as part of its biggest logistical effort in history, based on the handful of health boards who responded in full to the FOIs.

The Scotsman estimates, based on the average cost of the venues which provided figures, the total figure will be at least £17m and likely far higher based on the vaccination programme lasting until the end of October.

In NHS Lothian alone, the figure is £9m when staffing is included.

Alison Johnstone, the Scottish Greens’ health spokesperson, said the public deserved to see the full figures.

She said: “Transparent government is important at all times, but perhaps more so during a crisis. No-one is objecting to the Scottish Government spending the vast sums that are necessary to respond to the pandemic, but the public have a right to know whether or not that money is being spent well.

"As soon are costs are finalised, the public deserve to have all this information. You only have to look at the widely reported scandal of the UK Government's mishandling of pandemic procurement contracts to understand why scrutiny, transparency and accountability are so important.”

Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour's deputy leader, said the Scottish Government must be “open to scrutiny” on the figures.

She said: “The NHS and volunteers should be rightly proud of their efforts on the vaccine roll-out, but it is essential that they are not let down by a lack of transparency from the Scottish Government.

“Public confidence depends on open government. We’ve already had alarming figures around the ‘postcode lottery’ for vaccines. The SNP must be open to scrutiny on the cost of vaccine centres across Scotland."

Donald Cameron, the Scottish Conservative health spokesperson, said: "When it comes to how public money is spent, full transparency must be the default position.

"The SNP's hostility to being open and honest has become more pronounced, as we saw at the beginning of the pandemic with their cynical attempt to curtail Freedom of Information laws.

"Such secrecy and evasion serve no positive purpose and only lead to a lack of trust in our public bodies."

The Scottish Government said it was for health boards to decide which locations to use and it would continue to work with them.

A spokesperson said: “As we have previously said, any additional costs faced by health boards from the largest vaccination programme ever undertaken in Scotland are being met by the Scottish Government.

“Our vaccine deployment plan makes clear that the Covid-19 vaccination programme in Scotland is a national programme, delivered by local health boards, and it is for boards to identify what delivery locations they need although we provided national guidance and support.

“The Scottish Government is continuing to work closely with NHS boards, local authorities, and Health and Social Care Partnerships (HSCPs) to identify and confirm total costs of delivery, which will not be final until the programme is complete, and will remain subject to variations such as the speed of the vaccine roll-out, and how long venues will be required for.”

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