Demands mount for clarity over Nike conference virus tracing

Demands for the Scottish Government to “come clean” on the handling of the Nike conference coronavirus outbreak have stepped up a gear after the Chief Medical Officer appeared to admit guidelines had been changed as a result of failures to trace people who had interacted with infected delegates.

At yesterday’s daily government briefing Nicola Sturgeon again defended the public health experts, whom she said she relied on to carry out “rigorous” and “tried and tested” contact tracing, despite the revelation that an Edinburgh kilt shop worker had fallen ill after fitting five delegates, but had been unaware of the virus outbreak involving the conference attendees until after it had been exposed by the BBC.

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Standing beside the First Minister, the CMO Dr Gregor Smith said contact tracing should take place when someone had been in face-to-face contact, within one metre for any length of time, including possible physical contact, with an infected person. He also said that it should happen when someone had been within two metres of someone for 15 minutes or more.

Yet Gillian Russell and her kilt shop colleagues were not traced and neither were walking tour guides who had taken the delegates around Edinburgh’s Old Town.

And asked if the face-to-face guidance had changed in the light of the Nike conference, Dr Smith said there was “now much more detail so there was a full understanding for contact tracers as to what is meant by that.”

The conference, which involved 70 delegates from around the world, is believed to be Scotland's 'ground zero' in the spread of coronavirus.

Ms Russell said she had shouted at the TV when she heard Dr Smith’s explanation. “I am in that category. I’ve always thought I should have been contacted from the minute I heard about it on the BBC documentary and what he said proved it,” she said.

“When you’re fitting a kilt you’re as close as you are hugging someone. Only one out of the five had worn one before they didn’t know how to wear it or adjust it, so I as doing that, as well as sorting jackets and waistcoats, doing all that face to face.

“You’re extremely close - you can feel their breath on your face. And I was over an hour with them. Of course they also brought the kilts back because they were hired, so the person who was checking the kilts would also have been at risk.”

Ms Russell believes the government is at fault for not making the conference outbreak public, but also those carrying out the contact tracing for not “asking the right questions” of the delegates.

She added: “Hiring kilts is a standard thing for many people coming to conferences in Scotland. But they didn’t know about us, or about the walking tours - what did they ask them? And why wasn’t the hotel informed, or the people who transported them from airports, served them at bars? Of course they wouldn’t remember everything which is why I believe there should have been some announcement.

“The contact tracers made mistakes but the government should have been asking the right questions of them. They need to come clean about what’s happened here.”

Ms Russell was backed by Scottish Labour’s health spokesperson Monica Lennon, who said: “The public was wrongly kept in the dark about the Covid-19 Nike outbreak.

“We now know that people who had close face to face contact with the Nike conference delegates were not traced. Instead of dismissing legitimate concerns Nicola Sturgeon must provide clarity on the procedures and guidance that were followed.

“The Scottish Government must be completely transparent, including about any mistakes that have been made, so that the public can have confidence in the Test Protect programme.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “As the First Minister has previously said, the incident management team (IMT) established around the conference was comprised of very experienced public health professionals.

“The IMT will do everything it thinks necessary to protect public health. It is their task to investigate the incident and decide what follow up is required in order to protect public health.

“As part of that, they will contact trace everyone who met the definition of a contact. At the time, the definition of a close contact was someone who had spent 15 minutes within two metres of someone who tested positive, while they were symptomatic.

“This contact definition, agreed by the four nations’ public health authorities and informed by the latest scientific evidence at the time, was used while contact tracing was undertaken in Scotland until 12 March, when we moved to the delay phase.

“Contact tracing restarted in Scotland on 18 May with trials using a new contact definition, informed by the latest international evidence, of up to 48 hours prior to symptoms starting, to up to seven days after onset.

“This approach is consistent with the European Centre for Disease Prevention & Control (ECDC) and Public Health England (PHE) and will be used in contact tracing under the Test and Protect system.”

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