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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 12 May 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Urgent Question, Suppressing Covid: The Next Phase, Point of Order, Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Urgent Question

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

In addition to topical questions, we have an urgent question this afternoon.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason Covid-19 cases identified in Edinburgh on 2 March 2020 were not made public.

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport (Jeane Freeman)

On Sunday 1 March, the Scottish Government confirmed the first positive case of Covid-19 in Scotland, advising that the infected person was from the Tayside area and that the case was related to travel to an affected country. On the evening of 3 March, ministers were made aware of two additional cases, which we reported on 4 March. We advised that one of the individuals was resident in the Grampian area and the other was resident in Ayrshire.

Neil Findlay

Pandemic risk is the number 1 item on the Government’s risk register. When the Nike conference took place, Covid-19 was spreading throughout Asia and Europe. Why has it taken two months and a BBC documentary for the outbreak in my region to be made public?

Jeane Freeman

I need to make clear a couple of points. We had no knowledge of the outbreak at the conference at the time that it was taking place. Our knowledge of the cases is as I have stated. On 4 March we reported two cases. One of them was connected to the Nike conference. That case, as the first two cases did, triggered Health Protection Scotland to undertake contact tracing work.

The contact tracing work relating to the Nike conference was an international exercise. Some eight of the cases were resident in Scotland. Just as it had been in the first case, when we were strongly advised not to say specifically where in Tayside the patient in that case came from, the strong clinical advice that we received was not to say where the trigger case had come from, because it would then be possible to identify individuals. In the balance of upholding patient confidentiality, the advice was not to make that public at that point.

Neil Findlay

It has been two months since that happened. That information could have been made public within that period, but instead we had to wait until a documentary was made.

Over two days, some 70 delegates attended the conference at the Carlton hotel. Presumably they were working, socialising and mixing with staff and visitors inside and outside the hotel. We were told by the national clinical director that all cases in the early stage of the outbreak were subject to the test, trace and isolate approach. However, I have here a letter from NHS Lothian, which states that between 6 February and 13 March, which is a period of five weeks, only 30 families were contacted as part of the investigation of all TTI cases—not just those from the Nike conference. Will the cabinet secretary therefore tell us how many staff, guests and visitors who attended the Carlton hotel—and how many shop, bar and hospitality workers and taxi drivers across Edinburgh—were contacted, following the Nike conference, as part of the TTI strategy?

Jeane Freeman

I will make a number of points in reply to Mr Findlay. First, I hear what he says when he asks why it took a BBC documentary to mention the Nike conference. However, I have to ask him what purpose that would have served. The point of all this is to identify cases.

In the early days of the outbreak, when we were in the containment phase, we were undertaking contact tracing to ensure that we could break the transmission of the virus as best we could at that point. Contact tracing is about getting information from an individual about who they have been in contact with for more than 15 minutes, and at a distance of less than 2m. That means that a number of individuals whom a person passes in the street will not be on that contact tracing list, because the contact was neither long enough nor close enough for it to warrant such tracing in order to meet the purpose of that process.

I turn to the numbers that NHS Lothian has given Mr Findlay. As I have said, the conference was an international one, so the contact tracing process involved international efforts. Some of the tracing process was carried out in Scotland and some in other countries across the globe, where delegates came from. It therefore involved international efforts to identify where such individuals had been in touch with others and then to trace those other individuals and ensure that they were given proper clinical advice and support. All that happened as it should have happened. The Scottish Government then published the information about the first, second and subsequent cases as I have just outlined.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

The First Minister has said that she wants to be open and transparent with the people of Scotland. That has clearly not been the case in this instance. We have heard excuses from the cabinet secretary. Why did ministers not report that an outbreak had emerged in the NHS Lothian health board area, as she has outlined had been the case in both Tayside and Ayrshire? Given that the guest who was staying at the hotel during the conference told the programme makers that he had not been contact traced by anyone from the Scottish health service, why did we see such a basic failure in the test, trace and isolate methods that were used at the start of this crisis?

Jeane Freeman

Those are not excuses; they concern factual information. I do not think that anyone could accuse me, the First Minister or the Scottish Government of not publishing and making clear the maximum amount of information that we can—and the facts, where we are confident about the robustness of the data that we have. Where we are not confident about such data, we tell everyone that we are not yet publishing it, for that reason.

What was reported in all cases was where the individual was a resident of. We did not report in all cases where we thought they had contracted the virus. In the first case, we said that the individual was a resident of Tayside and we believed that they had contracted the virus from travel in a country where the virus was present. We did not name the country.

Our approach has been consistent in all this. If an individual believes that they were in contact with someone who was at that conference and that they should have been contacted by HPS, the straightforward way of dealing with that is to give me that information. I will ask HPS to respond to me and then I will respond to Mr Briggs accordingly.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

Jeremy Hunt, the former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, said yesterday in the Westminster Parliament that there was a culture of secrecy, which was responsible for the United Kingdom’s slow response to the virus.

Given that Scotland entered lockdown in lockstep with the UK, does the cabinet secretary agree with Mr Hunt’s analysis? In that light, should the Scottish Government have been more open about this outbreak and the advice upon which it was basing its decisions?

Jeane Freeman

I do not believe that, at any point in this entire exercise around Covid-19, either I or the First Minister or any other member of the Scottish Government could be accused of secrecy.

As has been recognised by independent experts—scientists and others—we have been very open in the amount of data that we have published and in our continuing attempts to consistently improve on that range of data. I do not think that secrecy has been a characteristic in any aspect of the approach that we have taken.

The scientific and clinical advice came to us as it did to other Governments across the UK, from the scientific advisory group for emergencies and from others and, as the member knows, most recently from the establishment of our own advisory group to the chief medical officer for Scotland. That group is chaired by Professor Andrew Morris and the details have been public from the outset.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

The BBC documentary also revealed that Wendy Russell contracted Covid-19 at a birthday party on 7 March. Several of her relatives were also infected that night and her niece Anna has now lost three grandparents because of it. This was meant to be at the height of the containment phase, where all Covid patients were isolated and their movements traced, yet nobody contacted Wendy after her infection and she fears that she may have passed it on to others at several public events.

Given that there were clearly serious deficiencies in test, track and trace during the containment phase, when we were dealing with just dozens of Covid patients, what confidence can the public have that no such deficiencies will exist when we try to upscale this to the tens of thousands?

Jeane Freeman

Having watched the “Disclosure” programme last night, I found that family’s account of what had happened to them deeply moving and they have my deepest condolences. It was truly a tragic event.

We have published our strategy for test, trace, isolate and support. I will, in due course, when we have moved further on with this, provide more details. The member. will know that we are scaling up our testing operation.

Also, yesterday and again today and during the rest of this week, adverts are going out to begin to recruit the additional contact tracers we need on top of what our local health protection teams are putting together. That is so that we can maximise, as our strategy document said, the numbers of contact tracers. We believe that we need at least 2,000 contact tracers in order to ensure that we can speedily trace people and, as I said earlier to Ms Lennon, to speed up the total turnaround time between taking the test sample and producing the result. Contact tracing will begin before the trigger case test result has returned. We want to be as quick as possible in doing all that.

We are learning lessons as we go. Our strategy and, more important, our focus on delivery will cover our requirements on the numbers, the speed and the ease with which individuals can advise us that they have symptoms of Covid-19. Importantly, that will also cover the motivation and support that we need to give to members of the public in circumstances in which they may be asked to isolate on more than one occasion.

The Presiding Officer

There is more interest in that question, but I am afraid that we must move to the next item of business. I apologise to the various members whom I could not call.