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Scotland’s Testing Programme “Worst Record In UK”

More than two-thirds of Scotland’s Coronavirus cases are being missed by the country’s testing programme – the worst record of all four UK home nations, a new study reveals today.

Examining the last six weeks of 2020, the report finds that, according to Office of National Statistics data, a daily average of 43,379 Scots had the virus.

Yet, in that same time frame, the Our Scottish Future study shows that Scotland’s test and tracing programme was only picking up a rolling average of 13,650 cases – just 32% of the total.

It suggest the majority of cases – affecting 30,000 Scots – were not found, meaning that the virus was left to spread within the community undetected.

Testing and tracing is the crucial “third leg” of the response to the pandemic, along with the vaccine and social distancing measures. Notwithstanding the vaccination programme, it will be vital over the coming weeks and months in assisting services to open up.  

Scotland’s performance compares to figures in Wales and Northern Ireland where the “detection rate” was more than twice as high, at 70% and 81% of total cases respectively. The figure in England is also low, at just 41%. 

The report finds that Scotland’s tracking and tracing programme is working relatively well compared to other UK nations. But it concludes that the failure to detect two-thirds of cases means it is having virtually zero impact on reducing the R number and preventing the spread of the disease.

Leading virologist Professor Hugh Pennington declares today that this failure means that – despite the prospect of a vaccine – Scotland is “fighting the virus with both arms tied behind our back”.

Prof Pennington and Our Scottish Future are now calling for testing to be offered far more proactively, particularly in schools to allow them to re-open as planned next month. Only a third of Scotland’s testing capacity is being used, according to the study, meaning there is ample scope for more tests to be completed.

The paper blames Scotland’s low detection rate and the failure to use spare capacity on the fragmented and hard-to-access delivery system which sees responsibility and capacity divided between different local health boards, the Scottish Government, and the UK Government. It urges all stakeholders to agree a fresh plan to deliver far more testing.

 The paper concludes: “Comparing positive tests results to the infection rate estimated by the ONS surveillance survey implies that an average of 68% cases since November have not been identified through testing – meaning that the vast majority of cases have not been contact-traced. Scotland is the worst performer in the UK on this metric.”

It adds: “Scotland’s Test & Protect operation is having no impact on the fight against COVID. Its low detection rate puts a ‘cap’ on the effectiveness of the rest of the Test & Protect operation. So long as detection rate is 30-40%, Scotland will be unable to meaningfully inhibit the spread of the virus through track & trace.”

Last week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon defended the low testing numbers, insisting that the figure was “demand led”.

However, the OSF paper argues that, rather than waiting for people to come forward, the UK and Scottish Governments should be doing far more to increase the demand for testing, with more focussed communication of the need to get tested, more sites that can provide better accessibility, improved “at home” testing services using lateral flow devices, and more targeted requests to test for those who have been identified as being potentially part of a chain of infection.

It also backs asymptomatic testing in schools so they can re-open as planned from February 1st.

Commenting today, Professor Pennington says: “It’s no wonder the virus is winning because, as this report shows, we are not seeking it out, and we are not finding it as often as we should do.”

He added: “Unless you go out to find the cases in the community, then we are working with both hands tied behind our back. We need proper investigation of outbreaks and I despair that this is not being done at all well. Until we get testing and tracing right, then the virus will continue to spread.”


The “detection rate” used in the OSF study takes the average daily number of infections in Scotland between November 22nd and January 2nd, as assessed by the Office of National Statistics – 43,379 a day.

It then calculates the trailing two-week average of positive cases actually detected by NHS Scotland and UK Government services from samples collected over that same time-frame – 13,649. Two weeks is used as this is the length of time people are typically estimated to be infected with the virus. Please see attached:

The full Our Scottish Future report on testing

The six week timeframe from November 22nd to January 2nd was chosen by the think-tank in order to ensure a reliable and up-to-date figure

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