The Scottish and UK Governments must agree a radical acceleration of testing for coronavirus in Scotland if the country is to secure a clear path out of lockdown, a leading think-tank says today.
In a new paper, Our Scottish Future says both Governments must plan to move from minimal to mass testing within DAYS – warning that the current ambition set out by Scottish Ministers is too low for the country post lockdown.
The report calls for ministers to co-ordinate a plan to begin frequent and regular routine preventative testing for 800,000 Scots: key workers such as NHS staff, care home staff, police officers, transport and retail workers – plus old people’s homes residents and anyone coming into the country.
Both Gordon Brown and Professor Hugh Pennington, one of Scotland’s leading microbiologists who has advised both the UK and Scottish Governments, says that mass testing must become the new normal.
The paper argues that the new Scottish Government testing target announced this week, for 15,500 tests a day by the end of May, is wholly inadequate to meet such a large group.
The think-tank warns it would:
- mean key workers in the NHS and in social care cannot get regularly tested and so would risk infecting patients if they go to work;
- force many employees to go into self-isolation for the full 14 days without pay, because they can’t get tested to see whether they are infected or not;
- leave contact tracers working below capacity because there would not be enough tests to process.
Current figures show just over 1.5% of the Scottish population have been tested since the start of the outbreak. The Scottish Government’s plan for 15,500 tests by the end of May points to just 0.3% of the population being tested per day.
Yet international evidence is that as in Germany Norway Denmark South Korea and down under a far bigger share the population should be tested every day if contact tracing is to be effective.
Scotland is starting from a low baseline: as of this week, just 19 tests per 1,000 people have been carried out, compared to 30 in Germany, 33 in Norway and 42 in Denmark.
The paper warns: “The Scottish Government’s plan to introduce 15,500 tests by the end of May is wholly inadequate and falls far short of the ambition we would hope to see at this stage. If not addressed, Scotland risks being forced to fight Coronavirus with one hand tied behind its back, with workers infecting others when they should be at home, while others trapped at home when they could be at work.”
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “Over the past month, we have seen our brilliant caring NHS and the whole country come together with self-discipline and self-sacrifice to fight this terrible disease. But the truth is we are only about to start stage two of this battle, and much, much more needs to be done.
“It’s now clear that mass testing across the community is the only way to give people the confidence to get back to work. But a maximum of 8,000 tests now and 15,500 by the end of the month is simply not good enough when we have 162,500 NHS staff, more than 130,000 adult social care workers,170,000 construction workers, 100,000 front line public servants from police and fire to teachers and 137,000 retail workers. Even on the Scottish Government’s most optimistic plan – 15,500 tested by the end of the month – we would be covering only 0.3 per cent of the people.
“It is a scandal and a tragedy that care home residents and workers are not being tested as a matter of routine. Reactive testing – when the disease breaks out – is not good enough when people can carry the disease for days and infect others without showing symptoms. Nor is random testing enough although we welcome dedicated teams who will test everyone in a home. We need routine preventive testing of all residents and workers on a regular basis to stop the disease.
“Nor can we tolerate a situation where – as our report suggests – key workers will be unable to get tested routinely and regularly and bread-winners will have to stay off work, losing pay, for lack of a test, telling them whether they are infected or not.
“We need the Scottish and UK Governments to come together on a war footing with a mass mobilisation of people resources and equipment and we need to ramp up our ambition with a plan which takes advantage of the UK-wide networks we have to accelerate testing at a much more rapid pace. Mass testing – not minimal testing – must become the new normal.”
Professor Hugh Pennington CBE, emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen added: “Mass preventative testing is essential if we are to drive COVID-19 out of Scotland and the UK. This practical evidence-based plan shows why, and how, it can be done. As a virologist I endorse it without reservation.”
Jim Gallagher, of Our Scottish Future, said: “The proposals are based on the international evidence and the emerging academic consensus about just how much more testing will be needed to get Scotland and Britain safely back to work.
“Scotland can’t do this on its own. It requires an unprecedented mobilisation of manufacturing and scientific resource at a UK level and testing infrastructure across the whole country. Both UK and Scottish governments should commit to it now.”
The paper makes in total six recommendations for the UK and Scottish Governments – which, between them, are sharing responsibility for the roll out of testing in Scotland:
- to commit to a far more ambitious antigen testing target;
- to use the whole weight of the UK’s NHS demand pool to buy lab resources including unused labs and repurpose manufacturing capacity;
- to integrate the testing network so it is seamless for Scottish patients
- to work together across the UK to share technological advances on testing, and back a UK wide trace and trace approach;
- to deploy the army, military vehicles and logistics to support mobile labs in more remote parts of Scotland – and source empty lab space;
- to put Scotland and the UK on a war footing – exchanging data and telling people to get tested, until testing is the new normal
It also warns that a lack of strategic thinking risks reducing the effectiveness of the Scottish testing plan. Figures this week show that under 5,000 tests were performed in Scotland across both the NHS Scotland and UK Government facilities – just 45% of capacity available.
Closer joint working could increase this percentage, the report concludes.
The 800,000 Scots who should get access to routine preventative testing are made up of the approximate 30,000 people who are likely to be forced into quarantine after lockdown (because they have symptoms or have been in close contact with an infected person), 300,000 health and social care workers, 130,000 teaching professionals and police officers, and 350,000 key workers in critical areas to the Scottish economy. from construction to retail where there is direct contact with the public.
According to academic evidence, routine testing can only be effective in cutting infection rates if it is available regularly – thereby giving key workers up to date information on whether they are safe to work, or whether they need to isolate.
The 15,500 testing target was set by the Scottish Government earlier this week and would be an increase on current levels of testing, which are less than 5,000 a day.
However, it is likely to fall short of UK-wide plans for testing, with plans being prepared to increase testing to 200,000 or more above and beyond the current 100,000 a day figure.