Nicola Sturgeon denies new testing regime proves past actions were wrong

The government is ramping up its plans to test, trace and isolate people with coronavirus.The government is ramping up its plans to test, trace and isolate people with coronavirus.
The government is ramping up its plans to test, trace and isolate people with coronavirus. | PA (Press Association)
Nicola Sturgeon has "emphatically" denied the government was wrong to halt contact testing in March as she launched a new plan to test, trace and isolate people with coronavirus across Scotland.

The First Minister today launched a plan for ensuring resources will be in place by the end of May for a test, trace, isolate (TTI) strategy, which will see 15,500 tests a day and the recruitment of 2000 staff.

At the Scottish Government's daily coronavirus briefing in Edinburgh, Ms Sturgeon said the approach may be needed in Scotland until a vaccine is found.

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However, when asked if the announcement was an admission that it was wrong to abandon a similar strategy in March when TTI has been proven to work in other countries already, Ms Sturgeon said: “It’s emphatically not that. In terms of my feelings in what we’ve done and not done, we’ve done the best we can and taken the best decisions based on the best possible evidence at every stage.

“In due course all countries will look back and critically assess the things we did and didn’t do, in order to learn lessons.”

She added: “We’ve been required to build up our testing capacity in order to expand the testing we’re doing and we’ll have to expand that further. But it’s really important to understand that TTI isn’t some kind of quick fix, it doesn’t work on its own to get, or keep, infection rates down. It’s an important tool used in combination with continued physical distancing, hand washing and use of face coverings, and limiting contact with people outside our own households.”

Outlining measures in the paper, Ms Sturgeon said there will need to be daily testing capacity of 15,500 in place to support the strategy, which the Scottish Government is pushing for by the end of the month.

She said the approach - to isolate people with symptoms, test for the virus and trace their contacts should they test positive - will require around 2,000 members of staff.

Asked if the government had been slow to recruit the numbers necessary to carry out TTI, as alleged by public health expert Professor Linda Bauld from Edinburgh University, Ms Sturgeon said: “I don’t think it’s fair to say the Scottish Government has been slow on this, this is not an easy process.

“We’ve been focused heavily on increasing testing capacity, and we’ve gone from a position at the start of March to have the capacity to process 350 tests a day, where this time next week it will be 10,000 and the middle of the month 12,000 which is a significant, rapid progress.”

She added that health boards were looking at how to increase contact tracing capacity from within the current workforce, but that an additional 2000 contact tracers would be recruited.

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She added that the strategy would be most effective when infection rates are “lower than now”, although could not specify how low.

The 14-page TTI paper published today said social distancing and other hygiene measures will need to continue while the strategy is implemented, with Ms Sturgeon saying it will not be a "quick fix or magic solution".

It reads: “Everyone in Scotland will have a part to play. We must be willing to continue physical distancing outside our homes. We must continue to observe good hand and respiratory hygiene.

“We must prepare for the possibility of having to self-isolate for 14 days in order to protect others because a close contact - whether someone we know well, or someone we have only spent time with once - has been diagnosed with Covid-19.

“"We must all be ready to come forward for testing if we need it.”It adds: “Test, trace, isolate, support, along with other public health interventions to reduce the risk of transmission, is likely to be part of life in Scotland until a vaccination programme for Covid-19 has been delivered.”

Ms Sturgeon said she would need the compliance of the Scottish public, saying: “I can't make TTI work without your co-operation and compliance, and I only have a right to ask for that if I'm open and honest with you about what we're doing to build it.”

Scottish Labour said that ditching the test and trace strategy early on was a mistake and called on the Scottish Government to begin to develop an exit plan that will “transition the NHS out of emergency status and place greater emphasis on protecting the mental and economic wellbeing of the population.”

Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw said that the government could not afford to miss its TTI targets now they had been set “for the sake of those suffering in lockdown” as another three weeks of stringent measures were likely.

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He said: “These aren’t targets the SNP can afford to miss. As we enter yet another potential period of extended lockdown, time is running out for those whose health is suffering under these unprecedented measures.

“If this test, trace and isolate drive will help ease lockdown, then it’s essential the SNP government gets it absolutely right. This cannot just be another example of Nicola Sturgeon’s government saying one thing and delivering something considerably less.

“All over Scotland, the physical and mental health of people is suffering, and they cannot afford to endure this longer than is necessary.”

Richard Leonard said the long-term impact of pausing services on health inequalities had been made clear by an Office for National Statistics report that nearly half of the population across the UK are suffering high levels of anxiety.

The Scottish Labour leader said: “While an end to the lockdown remains some time off, the Scottish Government must begin to plan a transition that ensures no one is left behind. The expansion of testing announced today is welcome, but long overdue.

“The government must also listen to clinicians who have warned that a delay to the restarting of clinical services could have a seriously detrimental impact on the welfare of patients.

“Indeed, the high number of so called “excess deaths” recorded recently suggests that people are missing out on the medical help they need. Support must also be given to the large number of people in Scotland who are deeply concerned and worried about their financial future.”

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