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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 11 November 2020

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, University and College Students (Support), Covid-19 Testing (Health and Social Care Workers), Covid-19 Support (Tourism and Hospitality), Urgent Question, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Housing Market (Islands)


Urgent Question

Test and Protect (Contact Tracing Performance)

The next item of business is an urgent question from Jackie Baillie, on the performance of test and protect.

Before I call Ms Baillie, I would like to highlight that my preference would have been for this urgent question to have been scheduled before the Labour Party debate on testing for all health and social care workers, given the clear crossover between the two issues. That possibility was explored with the Scottish Government; my understanding was that an earlier time slot was not possible due to the cabinet secretary’s diary commitments and the need for time to prepare for the debate and urgent question, both of which are entirely understandable reasons.

I was, however, surprised to see the cabinet secretary giving an interview to journalists in the garden lobby at around the time that had been put to the Government. I believe that the interview was not primarily about the subject matter of the question, although the issue was raised in questions and answers. I restate my strong expectation that ministers making themselves available to answer parliamentary questions in the chamber should take precedence over media interviews or briefings.

We turn now to the urgent question.

To ask the Scottish Government when it was informed that errors had been made in the publicly reported contact tracing performance of test and protect.

If I may, before I answer the question, I say that I hear what the Presiding Officer said and, of course, had it been within my control, I would not have been with the interviewer who asked me a question that was not what was scheduled to be discussed, which was the vaccination programme. However, unfortunately, I do not control what questions the media ask me.

With regard to the urgent question, I presume that members—[Interruption.] I presume that members wish to hear the urgent answer.

Public Health Scotland alerted the Scottish Government to an error in the contact tracing time statistics shortly before midday on 4 November, which was last Friday—last Thursday, rather—stating that a coding error had been discovered. Public Health Scotland added an alert to its 4 November publication and web pages, which stated that an error had been discovered and that a revised set of tables would be released at midday on 6 November. Public Health Scotland subsequently informed the Office for Statistics Regulation, and the revised figures were published at midday on Friday 6 November.

The errors in the contact tracing data that The Sun newspaper revealed are truly staggering and undermine public confidence in the system. Contact tracing is performing five times worse than the Scottish Government reported. Of those who tested positive, less than half were contacted within 24 hours. In one week in September alone, a minuscule 3.9 per cent of positive cases were contacted. That means that, over that period, some 15,000 people who tested positive were not contacted within 24 hours. Now, we are not even phoning people—we are simply sending them text messages.

In May, the scientific advisory group for emergencies said that delays in contact tracing would have an impact on the R number. Does the cabinet secretary therefore believe that the error resulted in an increased spread of Covid in September and October?

No, I do not.

In fact, what undermines public confidence is misrepresentation, wherever it comes from—whether from members on other parties’ benches or elsewhere.

I make it clear that I am really disappointed that Ms Baillie prefers to accept what Baroness Dido Harding says about how we do our job to accepting the facts. I am afraid that the good baroness is wrong. We do not just send SMS messages: we phone contacts of index cases up to three times until we find them. For those whom we then trace as contacts, we use a mixture of phone calls and SMS, moving incrementally to using phone calls entirely.

Acknowledging that the information in question was miscoded and wrong is not to deny the fact that in the week up to 8 November, we far exceeded the World Health Organization’s requirement that

“At least 80% of new cases have their close contacts traced and in quarantine within 72 hours of case confirmation”,

with 95.8 per cent of contact tracing of all positive cases being completed within 72 hours.

I repeat what I said earlier: it is entirely wrong, and unfair to the staff who are working so hard in our test and protect system—[Interruption.]

I remind members that it is not me who is doing test and protect, but those staff. They are working hard, are working long hours and are doing exceptionally well, and they are helping us to suppress the virus.

Members might not like that answer, and it is clear from what I am hearing that members on the Opposition sides of the chamber do not, but the facts are the facts, and I tell those members that they are wrong.

With all due respect to the cabinet secretary, I tell her that I have never knowingly quoted the baroness; rather, constituents have contacted me to tell me that they have been advised by text message.

I advise the cabinet secretary that one cherry-picked statistic does not restore confidence in the system. The First Minister has told members in the chamber many times that everything is fine and that contact tracing is working well, but the truth is different. Contact tracers work extremely hard and deserve our thanks, but there are not enough of them, and that is the Scottish Government’s responsibility.

Seven months ago, we were promised 2,000 contact tracers, and we got 800 seconded posts. Ministers boasted about getting 20,000 applications, but those applicants have been contacted only in the past few weeks. Given the rising number of positive Covid cases, what assessment has been made of demand? We now have 2,000 contract tracers—it has only taken seven months. Will that be enough to enable the system to cope?

We expect the public to take responsibility and follow the rules. Does the Government also not have a responsibility to get contact tracing right in order to stop the spread of the virus?

Yes, we absolutely do have that responsibility, which is why I am glad that we are meeting it and are getting contact tracing right. If we look at the revised Public Health Scotland figures—which were revised after it had spotted its coding error—for the period from 9 August to 25 October, regarding the time that was taken between the case appearing in the test and protect system and the interview being completed by the contact tracer, we find that that was done within 72 hours in 95 per cent of cases.

I do not believe that the system is failing. We have 2,221 fully trained contact tracers. We said at the outset of test and protect that we would have 2,000 fully trained contact tracers. We had them, and we now have another 221. We flex the system against demand on the system. That makes perfect sense, and that is what we have been doing.

We have sufficient contact tracers to meet the demands of the current system and the predicted demand as we go forward, but—[Interruption.] This will not work if Ms Baillie just talks at me while I am answering her question. We will continue to advertise, recruit, train and bring on board additional contact tracers, including in a bank system, so that we have that back-up if the number of cases should rise significantly and 2,221 contract tracers is insufficient.

I am so disappointed that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport is defending the indefensible. For months now, I have been repeatedly rebuked by the First Minister for questioning the effectiveness of the testing and tracing system. I did so because outbreaks were not being brought under control by test and protect.

Now we discover that thousands of close contacts, who had a high chance of being contagious, were out and about when they should have been self-isolating. The health secretary says that she would have done nothing different if she had known that. That is codswallop, and she knows it: we would have had more tracers.

Can the health secretary tell me this: how many more people were infected as a result of that error?

It was a coding error—the issue is about how data are put into the system. The error meant that the numbers that had gone into the system, saying that cases had been contacted within 24 hours, were out. That was revised—members can look at the revised data and see the difference between what was originally published and what was revised when the coding error was corrected.

That is not about people who have been missed. I am not “defending the indefensible”; I am simply pointing out that our test and protect system more than meets the required World Health Organization standard, and that we have more than enough contact tracers, who are fully trained and ready to be deployed, although we continue to recruit more, so that we have a bank of them.

I am not defending the indefensible. I say sorry to members, but I am simply stating the facts. I regret that members do not like it—but, as I said, facts are facts.

The cabinet secretary will no doubt agree that the public must have confidence in test and protect.

I have two questions. First, for the record, can the cabinet secretary confirm that the coding error that was made was that people were noted as having been contacted between 0 and 24 hours after the index case was notified instead of within 24 to 48 hours? Can she clarify that that is the actual error that was made?

Secondly, can the cabinet secretary say what implications, if any, that error has had for decisions that Scottish ministers have made in their response to the pandemic and the restrictions that they have put in place over the past few weeks?

Mr Wightman is correct: the error in classifying the cases meant that some cases were classified as having been notified within 0 and 24 hours, when they should have been classified as having been notified within between 24 and 48 hours.

Mr Wightman is absolutely correct in his understanding of the coding error, and I can confirm that none of the earlier or revised information, which members are welcome to look at, would have made any difference to the decisions that we have taken in relation to the strategic framework or the allocation of levels of restriction to local authorities across Scotland.