A New Testing Strategy
Scotland appears to be on the cusp of entering a second period of significant national restrictions with reports of a two week “circuit breaker” designed to “buy time” as we enter winter with the Covid pandemic. Ahead of an announcement by the First Minister tomorrow about what new restrictions will be brought into play, we are calling for the Government to make the best use of the time gained.
Back in April, we produced a paper called “Ending Lockdown” which called for a programme of mass population testing and community support to deal with the then out-of-control spread of the virus through Scotland. At the start of September, we expanded and nuanced that model with our paper “Warning Lights” which described a ‘traffic light’ system of local responses based on a clear national framework. This latter plan would help to contain outbreaks of the virus and allow the maximum number of people to spend the longest possible time with the fewest possible restrictions upon their lives until the pandemic is over. You can watch the Scottish Government’s response to our paper here.
In Warning Lights we called for a decentralised system of tracking the spread of the virus at community level. Since then, the Scottish Government has launched just such a community model via Public Health Scotland’s neighbourhood map of instances of the virus. We welcome this map but now call for the Scottish Government to take the next steps to make the model work as part of a full Elimination strategy.
If the coming restrictions are to be more than just buying a couple of weeks but about actually turning around the progression of the virus, Scotland needs to use the time to prepare rather than to merely push the peak of the infection two weeks closer to Christmas. The Scottish Government must spend this time well and effectively so that we can return to our lives safely.
Currently, the data on the neighbourhood map is based solely on people who develop Covid symptoms then take a test that returns a positive result. There is currently no public data on the spread of Covid in Scotland based on random sample testing that would help to pick up very mild and non-symptomatic cases so that potential outbreaks can be prevented before they start to cause widespread community transmission. If this testing programme is deployed by teams of people embedded within communities then we limit the need to travel long distances to receive a test.
We want the Scottish Government to begin a programme of random sample testing consisting of a minimum of 1,000 people per week, per local Authority. This is the equivalent of around 4,500 additional tests per day – less than double what Scotland is currently doing and still well below the maximum capacity of what Scotland is capable of processing.
The lesson of the end of the summer break has been that Covid spread through schools and universities essentially as soon as it was able to. The Scottish Government must use the time bought by the “circuit-breaker” to adapt our learning spaces to be able to keep those who use them safe – both younger students and, perhaps more crucially, older teachers and staff. Schools that cannot be run at full capacity in a Covid safe manner should be provided with the tools to be able to shift to a blended learning model or to use alternative buildings such as public halls or leisure centres to allow people to physically distance.
We are also calling for Scotland to take proper control of incoming routes of infection. It will be a completely futile exercise to eliminate the virus from Scotland only to allow it to re-enter and re-circulate. We appreciate the practical difficulties in Scotland actively closing international ports of entry and the political issues around closing the land border with England but there should be absolutely no reason why incoming travellers cannot be diverted through a test and screening centre and/or be required to quarantine upon entry. Such quarantines must be checked for compliance – it is not sufficient to monitor only a small fraction of them as is currently the Scottish Government’s policy. We know from several “superspreader” events that it only takes a single breach of quarantine procedures to create a major outbreak.
Common Weal encourages you to read our full proposals in our “Warning Lights” paper and to write to your local MSPs (you can find your MSPs and write to them here). Ask them to read our paper and ask them to call for the Scottish Government to implement the rest of the proposals in it.