MINISTERS hope to vaccinate around one million Scots by the end of January in the largest programme of its kind ever undertaken.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said the Scottish Government plans to vaccinate 4.4 million Scots over the age of 18 in the coming months.

She said ministers are looking to begin the coronavirus vaccination programme in the first week of December, using the first batch of 320,000 doses expected next month.

Older people and those in at-risk categories will be vaccinated first, followed by the wider population from around late March or early April.

Officials cautioned it could be spring or summer 2021 before the whole population is vaccinated.

Speaking in Holyrood, Ms Freeman said: "Scotland has an excellent track record of vaccinations.

"But this is to be one of the biggest civilian logistical challenges in our lifetime."

Ministers hope the delivery programme will take from December until spring next year to complete.

The first wave will be carried out from December to February.

This will see frontline health and social care staff, older residents in care homes, care home staff, those aged over 80, unpaid carers and personal assistants and those who will be delivering the programme all vaccinated.

Those aged over 65 and those under 65 who are at "additional clinical risk" could then be vaccinated, before it is offered to the wider population.

Ms Freeman said Scotland will need more than 2,000 vaccinators and support staff by the end of January.

This could allow around one million people to be vaccinated by that time.

She said: "We are hopeful that over the coming weeks into 2021 we will have more than one vaccine available to us, so that we can, with minimum delay, vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible."

The Health Secretary said the military stands ready to support the roll-out.

She said: "With so many vaccines in phase three clinical trials, there is the potential for multiple vaccines being available over the next 12 months, and it is possible that these will have different characteristics that impact on how they are stored, handled and delivered.

"That requires real logistical expertise from one organisation that can cover the whole country. 

"So I'm grateful that the military have responded once again and stand ready to bolster our planning, bringing with them a wealth of logistical and operational expertise."

However Ms Freeman stressed there are still a number of unknowns, such as which vaccines will be approved for use, transport conditions, number of doses, the level of protection and the characteristics of certain vaccines.

She also explained there is still logistical work to be done to prepare health boards to carry out vaccinations, with ongoing efforts to recruit and train the workforce, create a national booking service and set up sites for "mass vaccination", as well as those that will be carried out in homes and care homes.

Ms Freeman said the first vaccines will require two doses three to four weeks apart.

"It's possible that further booster doses and even an annual programme might be required," she said.

Under 18s are not due to be vaccinated yet because clinical trials involving children are at an early stage.

Experts say younger people are generally less susceptible to Covid.

It is not clear how many people in Scotland will need to be vaccinated before a return to normality becomes possible.

It is also not known whether the current vaccines prevent transmission of the virus - something that could prove key.

Officials say there are no plans to make vaccination mandatory, but ministers hope as many people as possible take it up.

Ms Freeman said: “I want to be clear that safety is paramount in our approach to the Covid-19 vaccination programme.

“The global scientific, research and pharmaceutical community has come together and worked as never before.

"That is why we are seeing the front running vaccines delivered in months rather than years, but it is not at the expense of safety.

“Any Covid-19 vaccines deployed in Scotland will be used on the basis of compelling public health grounds, and only when the regulatory bodies and those charged with providing independent clinical advice are satisfied in terms of vaccine safety and effectiveness.

"The groups we vaccinate first will also be those most at risk from Covid-19."

She added: “We will be getting in touch with the first priority groups in the coming weeks and I urge people to take up the vaccine when they are offered it. It offers additional protection that we don’t have by other means.

“I also want to thank those who are not in the first priority groups for their patience as we protect the most vulnerable people in our communities first, in line with the scientific and clinical evidence."

Scottish Labour health and social care spokeswoman Monica Lennon said: “It’s extremely encouraging to hear that the Scottish Government is committed to rolling out COVID-19 vaccinations as soon as they arrive in Scotland.

“The workforce will be crucial to this work getting underway safely and quickly.

"However, lessons must be learned from the chaotic flu vaccination programme.

"The ambition to deliver one million vaccinations by the end of January needs to be matched by resources and investment in staff, and a clear plan on logistics.  

“The health secretary has identified that 2,000 staff will be needed initially to roll out one million vaccinations by the end of January.

“More detail needs to be provided on recruitment, training and how essential NHS services will be able to continue in parallel with the ambitious Covid-19 vaccination programme.

“As well as getting these crucial vaccine preparations right, the Scottish Government must urgently expand Test and Protect to help stop the spread of the virus.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesman Alex Cole-Hamilton said his party has "called for a clear rollout strategy and framework for delivery".

He added: "The calamitous flu jab rollout is set to run to the end of this year.

"The national booking service will be critical to an orderly rollout of a Covid-19 vaccination, so we need more details of how this will be established urgently, because people will want this vaccine yesterday."