Scotland to continue plans for mass Covid testing after England rollout accuracy concerns

The Scottish Government has said it will press ahead with plans to follow England’s rollout of mass twice-weekly lateral flow testing, after concerns were raised over accuracy of the tests south of the border.

The programme in Scotland, which was announced by Nicola Sturgeon last week, is still being finalised a week after more detail was due to be set out.

But a spokesperson for the Scottish Government said on Friday there had been no change to the plans after leaked emails showed ministers in England were “urgently” considering withdrawing the tests amid concerns over accuracy.

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In leaked emails reported by the Guardian, Ben Dyson, an adviser to UK health secretary Matt Hancock, said there was a “fairly urgent need for decisions” on “the point at which we stop offering asymptomatic testing”, warning the accuracy of the tests could be as low as 2 per cent.

Picture: PA MediaPicture: PA Media
Picture: PA Media

Dr Angela Raffle, a lecturer at Bristol University Medical School, said it was “beyond belief” that testing had been rolled out without proper scrutiny of how well they perform outside a clinical setting.

Neil Mabbott, professor of immunopathology at Edinburgh University, said the tests would be “very helpful” in allowing restrictions to ease, and that some testing was better than no testing.

But he added the lateral flow tests were “nowhere near as accurate” as PCR tests, and they could be harmful if people took fewer precautions as a result of getting a negative test.

Commenting on the tests in general, Prof Mabbott said: “They will detect people with a reasonably high viral titre [viral load], so they’re going to miss certain people who fall below that threshold.

"And when you have a PCR test, it’s probably being taken by somebody who is trained, so because the public are doing most of these tests the accuracy of sampling the site might not be as consistent.

“They are going to miss a proportion of infection individuals, but they will capture a reasonable amount of people who have high titres who wouldn’t necessarily be showing symptoms.”

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He added: "They are very harmful if people think when they test negative that they don’t need to worry about social distancing or wearing a mask etc. It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card that means you can go back to your normal life.”

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Dr Raffle, who is also a consultant to the UK National Screening Programmes, called it "beyond belief" that lateral flow tests had been rolled out "without some really solid evaluation being done months and months ago to say ... what really happens in a true life setting?"

She added: "The idea that we should be making tests available to the general population to use themselves when we have no data at all on how well they perform when done by people who aren't trained, to me it's just crazy."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said the planned mass testing programme “will help us protect the progress we’ve made so far in easing restrictions by finding cases that might otherwise be missed, as not everyone with Covid-19 will have symptoms”.

They added: “Targeted community testing in Scotland has already identified over 1,000 cases of Covid-19 in people without symptoms, helping to break chains of transmission within those communities by enabling those people to immediately self-isolate.”

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