Testing for all as Scotland prepares to ease lockdown

Everyone in the UK over the age of five can now access a coronavirus test if they show symptoms of the illness, as governments in London and Edinburgh scramble to set up the infrastructure needed to trace and isolate cases while easing lockdowns.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon revealed that the first significant easing of social distancing restrictions will begin on 28 May, with the Scottish Government publishing its roadmap on Thursday.

It comes as guidance was updated to add anosmia – the loss of smell or taste – to the official list of coronavirus symptoms that require someone to self-isolate and seek a test.

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Ms Sturgeon said: “As well as allowing more people to have a case of Covid-19 confirmed, today’s expansion will also be helpful as we build towards our strategy of test, trace, isolate and support – something that will be especially important as we start to emerge gradually from lockdown.

Edinburgh's Waverley Train Station is empty of passengers as Scotland continues with lockdownEdinburgh's Waverley Train Station is empty of passengers as Scotland continues with lockdown
Edinburgh's Waverley Train Station is empty of passengers as Scotland continues with lockdown

“This is vital in order to keep transmission in communities low.”

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack said: “Increasing the numbers of people tested in Scotland is a key part of easing lockdown restrictions and getting people back to work.

“The UK government is funding five drive-through and 13 mobile testing sites throughout Scotland to ensure testing capacity across the UK is maximised. These will now be open for anyone over the age of five who has symptoms.

“These tests will be processed at the ‘megalab’ in Glasgow, operated by Glasgow University and funded by the UK government, which forms a key part of our UK wide testing network.”

The UK’s official daily death toll in the 24 hours to 9am yesterday was 160. There were 100,678 tests provided across the UK on 17 May.

Mr Hancock said governments were “expanding eligibility for testing further than ever before” as ministers aim for a new goal of having the capacity for 250,000 tests per day across the UK by the end of the month.

And he hailed the public and private sector effort that had seen the UK’s “small” diagnostic industry being “scaled” at “breathtaking pace into a global champion”.

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He was challenged by Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth over reports that test results are taking days to be returned, with the UK forced to export tens of thousands of samples to Germany and the US for analysis due to a lack of lab capacity. Mr Hancock said the average wait for test results was “under 48 hours”. In Scotland, the government is using existing technical systems for tracing infectious diseases to log potential coronavirus cases and warn those who have come into contact with them.

Contract tracing will rely on an army of staff who will inform people who have come into contact with suspected coronavirus cases by telephone. The UK government announced it had hired 21,000 contact tracers – 3,000 more than originally promised.

The Scottish Government said it would trial its contact tracing systems in three NHS health boards. However, it was revealed at the weekend that despite 8,000 people applying for 2,000 positions, only 600 contact tracers were ready to begin work, prompting the Scottish Conservatives to accuse ministers of being “behind the curve”.

Scottish health secretary Jeane Freeman yesterday insisted the contact tracing infrastructure would be in place by 1 June. “If we need more contact tracers we will get more contact tracers,” she told the BBC.

Ms Freeman added: “It is tried and tested technology but it needs scaled up considerably and we need to 
make it work for this particular virus.

“So what is being tested is the technology, making sure the software works, that it links with our NHS system and that the data it gathers is held confidentially so it is test run before we scale it up and use it across all our health boards.”

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said: “Test, trace and isolate will be key to beating Covid-19, but disappointingly, Scotland is still not in a position to implement this strategy.

“It cannot be successful without a co-operative approach to tackling coronavirus in Scotland, so I would urge both governments to get round the table and agree on a workable plan.

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“The test, trace and isolate approach should never have been abandoned by the Scottish Government in March.

“SNP ministers claimed that this would not inhibit them re-adopting the strategy, but now they are facing serious questions about their slowness in recruiting contract tracers.”

The UK government admitted yesterday that an NHS mobile phone app, one of the key tools that will help clamp down on the virus in England, would not be ready for several weeks, and may not be rolled out by 1 June when the first school pupils are expected to return to class in England.

Health Secretary Mr Hancock had originally suggested the app, which is being trialled on the Isle of Wight, would be ready in mid-May.

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