PREPARATIONS to give out millions of coronavirus vaccines must start now or Scotland risks compounding the economic damage caused by the pandemic, a leading expert has warned.

Professor Phil Greening of Heriot-Watt University said the country is currently nowhere near prepared enough to handle the logistical nightmare of vaccinating millions of people in a very short space of time.

Pointing to the PPE distribution fiasco, and the inability of many frontline healthcare workers to get to testing hubs easily, the academic said it is imperative health and Government leaders begin their vaccine planning or face being last in line for vital supplies needed to give out the treatment.

READ MORE: Coronavirus : Scotland actually tests only one-third of capacity, new figures show 

Professor Greening, from the university’s Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, said: “People need to start realising that when an effective vaccine is developed every [country] is going to want to vaccinate at the same time, as it releases the economic shackles.

“Every country is going to be trying to access the same resources at the same time. It will be like the problem with PPE, magnified by a thousand.”

Not only will Scotland be trying to access resources for its 5.5 million residents, it will be doing so at the same time as every other nation desperate to find enough syringes, fridges, vans, storage and staff to vaccinate 6.6 billion people across the globe.

Within this context, Greening said, preparation is key and the only way to make sure every resident will be able to access the vaccine equally.

He also warned that if the groundwork is not done, those in rural communities such as Orkney and the Hebrides will suffer the most as they will undoubtedly be the last ones to receive a vaccine, with London most likely to be a priority.

He explained: “If the UK as a whole can’t access enough resources, if we leave the planning too late and we can’t get enough fridges and vehicles and the supplies of syringes are dribbling in ... what may happen is that we take the limited resources we have managed to get and roll it across the whole of the UK, in a wave.

“You could spend a week in London, another in Manchester, Birmingham. That will be a problem because at the top of the country is Scotland.

“You would have to prioritise where you will get the biggest benefit in the shortest time, which would, quite sensibly I think, start with London. It has the highest population density and you could deliver vaccines quickly.

“Rural communities would be one of the last places to get access to the vaccines. The very last would be Orkney and the Outer Hebrides.”

A major part of the planning process, according to academic, will be to ensure not only that there is enough storage for a vaccine when it arrives, but that the “cold chain” able to distribute it is joined up.

This is important as vaccines normally have to be stored between 2-8C otherwise they become deactivated, so it is essential that there are enough refrigerated vehicles and cold facilities within GP surgeries to keep the temperature down until the jabs reach people.

Supermarket delivery vans, usually used to transport online food orders at cold temperatures, could be borrowed from retailers to help with the transport, the academic said.

READ MORE: Jeane Freeman: I have no idea what UK's new lockdown message means

In Scotland, there is a more pronounced problem for distribution as the population is more spread out with island communities particularly affected. The logistics of getting the vaccine to them will be a “unique” challenge for the Scottish Government, with Greening suggesting there will be more vehicles needed north of the Border than anywhere else to get the jabs to everyone.

The Scottish Government will have to start investing in refrigeration systems now to make sure there are enough to safely transport the vaccine across Scotland at speed, Greening said.

He explained: “Refrigerated vehicles exist but they’re currently being used for other things.

"One suggestion is that we borrow from the food supply chain for a fortnight, supermarket delivery vans for example could be used. The technology would need to be tuned but those strategies are available.

"You need to work out which strategy you are going to use, and then plan around that.

“The thing which worries me the most is that the planning work is not happening because the vaccine is some way off. That approach just leads to problems further down the line, as we have seen with PPE, and access to testing.”

Greening is part of a group of academics looking at the scale of the challenge involved in delivering a vaccine, not only in the UK but around the world.

Scientists from Heriot-Watt and Birmingham universities received funding from the Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation for their work, which Greening hopes will be used to inform governments’ plans for immunising their population.

Part of the work involves developing community "cooling hubs" in India, whereas much as 25% of vaccines are spoiled as soon as they reach the country due to the high temperatures and lack of cold transportation.

Toby Peters, professor of cold economy at the University of Birmingham, said the idea of community cooling hubs could be used elsewhere and would create a “sustainable system” for vaccine distribution as a “lasting legacy”.

He said: “With Covid-19, rapid mass immunisation will probably be required – maintaining a continuous cold chain to rapidly transport and deliver Covid-19 vaccines to all communities, many where electricity supply and cooling infrastructure is often non-existent or unreliable, will be a daunting task.

“Given most of the technologies deployed today will still be in operation in the next decade, the emergence of sustainable and off-grid cold-chain devices allows us the opportunity to create sustainable solutions for Covid-19 vaccine deployment that also can deliver resilient and sustainable health cold-chain systems as a lasting legacy.”