Nicola Sturgeon

Johnson: no Covid vaccine in Scotland if it were up to SNP

Boris Johnson has taken a swipe at the Scottish National party by claiming that there would not have been a single Covid-19 vaccine in Scotland if it were up to Nicola Sturgeon’s party, the Guardian understands.

Addressing a virtual meeting of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs on Tuesday evening before Wednesday’s Commons vote on the third national lockdown in England, the prime minister highlighted the threat of the new Covid variant, but is also said to have criticised Scotland’s ruling party.

Johnson tackled a series of questions from backbenchers on the Zoom call, including one from a Scottish Tory MP about the SNP, the answer to which took aim at the pro-independence party.

The prime minister is understood to have said that the strength of the union lay in what could be done for people across the UK, claiming that if it were up to the SNP, no coronavirus vaccines would have been delivered in Scotland.

One MP who attended the virtual meeting said: “Essentially, the point the prime minister was making is that the UK is a major country, we’ve got sufficient clout to get the vaccines rolled out. He did actually mention that we were ahead of the rest of Europe.

“He said if it were up to the SNP, then there wouldn’t have been a single vaccine delivered in Scotland. It was a UK effort, in other words, and needed the clout of a big government.”

Asked about Johnson’s comments on Wednesday, the prime minister’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, said she had not been present at the 1922 meeting. But she said: “In terms of the broader point about the vaccine, there’s no doubt that the union’s been critical in the development, production and administration of the vaccine, and indeed across a range of measures. The UK governments during this pandemic have all worked together to provide for the British people.

“I think on Monday Nicola Sturgeon said they have 100,000 vaccines in Scotland. It’s great news for the Scottish people, but it’s been a collective effort.”

Responding to Johnson’s remarks, an SNP spokesperson said on Wednesday: “These comments are as crass as they are inaccurate and show once again how desperate the Tories are to politicise the pandemic. The development of vaccines has been a global effort and our focus is on ensuring we vaccinate people in Scotland as quickly and as safely as it is possible to do so.”

The first doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine began to be administered in the UK on Monday, after the jab received approval from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) last month. It is the second vaccine to be approved by the regulator in the UK, following the Pfizer/BioNTech jab.

According to the government, through the vaccines taskforce the UK “secured early access” to 357m doses of the seven “most promising” vaccine candidates. That includes the Oxford/AstraZeneca and BioNTech/Pfizer jabs.

Vaccination is being managed separately by health services in each UK nation, including NHS Scotland.

Johnson’s comments follow Sturgeon saying that Scotland had acted “much earlier” to get the latest Covid wave under control compared with Johnson’s government in London. Speaking during a coronavirus press briefing earlier on Tuesday, Scotland’s first minister made the claim as she sought to defend her decision to close places of worship, which remain open in England.

“It is one of the points of difference between Scotland and the UK, but so is the fact we decided to act much earlier in the curve of this wave of the pandemic to get it under control,” Sturgeon said. “We are trying to act as cautiously as we can at the moment to stop this situation deteriorating any further.”

On Sunday, Johnson reiterated his position that a Scottish independence referendum should be a “once-in-a-generation” vote.

The prime minister told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “Referendums in my experience, direct experience, in this country are not particularly jolly events. They don’t have a notably unifying force in the national mood. They should be only once in a generation.”

In November, Johnson triggered an angry reaction from politicians across the spectrum after he dismissed devolution as “a disaster north of the border”. During a Zoom call with about 60 northern Conservative MPs, the prime minister described devolution as “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”.

Responding to questions from the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, on Wednesday after his Commons statement on the lockdown, Johnson said “every part of the United Kingdom” had received the vaccine “thanks to our national NHS”.

He added: “It is thanks to our United Kingdom NHS, thanks to the strength of UK companies, that we are able to distribute a life-saving vaccine across the whole of our country, and I think that is a point that he might bear in mind.”