Coronavirus test-and-trace: How Scotland missed an opportunity at the start of pandemic crisis – Brian Wilson

Scotland could have gone for a test-and-trace strategy from the outset of the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, writes Brian Wilson
Sam Galbraith was a surgeon, a Labour MP and health minister under Donald Dewar, and then an MSP (Picture: Stephen Mansfield)Sam Galbraith was a surgeon, a Labour MP and health minister under Donald Dewar, and then an MSP (Picture: Stephen Mansfield)
Sam Galbraith was a surgeon, a Labour MP and health minister under Donald Dewar, and then an MSP (Picture: Stephen Mansfield)

There was an excellent BBC Scotland programme this week with Samantha Polling reporting from the ‘Pandemic Frontline’.

It gave a rare voice to people working on that frontline and the picture painted was worlds removed from the podium-based version with which we have become familiar.

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The Scottish Government fielded the hard-pressed Professor Jason Leitch and it would be fair to say it was not his finest hour. Faced with first-hand accounts from the frontline, his preferred response was denial.

The director of care at Erskine Home for ex-servicemen, Derek Barron, related his experiences of having to resort to eBay for PPE. Professor Leitch retorted: “They didn’t have to do that. There is no reason for a care home to buy PPE from eBay.”

That left the question hanging of why Erskine’s director of care would go onto eBay if the alternative existed of phoning a number in Scotland with a supply delivered to his door. It did not seem probable.

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Then Ms Polling, on the basis of interviews, put it to Professor Leitch that staff were “terrified” of going into work, for fear of taking the virus with them. “I walk the floors of the health service,” he responded. “I don’t hear that.”

I appreciate the pressures but it did not augur well for the much-vaunted “grown-up conversation”. Evidence versus denial with little follow-through since channels of accountability are so constrained leaves a dichotomy. Most of us hear only the official line while the frontline knows different.

At First Minister’s Questions, Ms Sturgeon stated: “The overall number of deaths from the virus in care homes in Scotland is broadly in line with some of the international evidence.”

Whether true or not, it is hardly the point. The question is whether things could have been, and now can be, done better. The rationale on testing remains, to me, a mystery. In the face of international evidence, its significance was consistently downplayed at both UK and Scottish levels.

Barely a fifth of Scottish care workers have been tested. If it is a good idea to “ramp-up” now, why was it “a diversion” before?

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The same questions can be asked of Matt Hancock and Jeane Freeman, but it is the latter who has responsibility in Scotland – and that responsibility is non-transferable.

When all this is eventually inquired into, one crucial question is how effectively, or otherwise, the powers of devolution have been utilised – ie the potential to do things differently while remaining in harmony.

The Scottish Government was entitled to take its own approach to this crisis. Covid-19 arrived later than in England. We do not have a mega-city like London. Vast areas are sparsely populated which is part of why we get so much more to spend on the NHS.

Yet we seem to have an uncomfortable mix from ministers. When things have not gone well, notably on testing and PPE, they take refuge in having acted on a “four nations basis” but also create confusion through the odd bit of differentiation like the stuff on masks (or is it scarves?).

It is often forgotten that devolution, nowhere more than in the NHS, existed long before Holyrood was heard of. One spectacular example was in 1997 when Sam Galbraith, as pre-devolution health minister, set about abolishing the internal NHS market without regard to what was happening south of the border.

I am pretty sure Sam, if he was still with us, would have said at the outset of this crisis – just like his old mate, Harry Burns – that testing and tracing were the keys and they could do what they liked down south but that was what he would be prioritising in Scotland.

That confidence no longer exists, largely because every point of difference or sameness is overlaid with polarised calculations around the constitutional issue which distorts basic questions of what is best and right.

In this crisis, the answers might well have been different in Scotland but the political paradox is that there is nobody who carries the credibility or trust to say so.

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