A bit of escapism is sometimes needed in these grim times, so Scotland’s men’s football team making it to a major championship for the first time since 1998 is not an unhealthy tonic. In 1998 there was no Scottish Parliament, Google had just been founded, and the DVD was sold for the first time – it’s been a long time coming.
Back to the harsh realities of pandemic 2020, and there are more questions about Scotland’s Test and Protect system. Following the revelation of a “coding error” which had been overestimating performance figures for the number of people who had been contacted within 24 hours of testing positive, it has also been revealed that 6 per cent of people who tested positive since the end of June have not been reached by Test and Protect. That’s 3,500 people who may well have gone on to spread the virus.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said this was not a failure of the testing system, as those people simply refused to respond to phone calls and text messages.
“All of us have a personal responsibility – you cannot blame Test and Protect if people are not answering their phone to Test and Protect,” she said.
Making it an issue of individual ethics is hardly the point, though. It’s about effectiveness in reducing transmission. If Test and Protect was not a centralised call centre system, then a knock on the door to confirm they received the information and ensure details of all close contacts would not be the most difficult thing in the world. On Source Direct we have been boringly repetitive about the weaknesses of an overly-centralised system, when proper contact tracing (which existed long before this pandemic) is essentially a localised activity.
It’s also not clear that what Test and Protect is now registering as a completed case is really sufficient. The Public Health Scotland statistical report states that: “Over the past few weeks, contact tracing of contacts has been primarily focused on SMS messages. As a result, contacts where a mobile number is available will receive a SMS message with advice to self-isolate. Once the SMS message has been delivered, the contact will be marked as complete.” This new approach has, naturally, increased Test and Protect’s % for number of cases contacted and speed in which they are contacted, but it is hardly a bullet proof system. As cases rise, it’s more – not less – important that people have a full understanding of what being a close contact means for them.
There are other things in the PHS report that jump out as worrying. Of 168,835 people who have arrived in Scotland from 22 June to 8 November and are required to quarantine, just 20,558 have been followed up by Test and Protect, with only 16,992 of those being successfully reached. So the international quarantine system is almost entirely reliant on the individual having the understanding of which countries are on the ever changing quarantine list and the responsibility to then self-isolate for two weeks.
And from 74,075 total confirmed cases from 28 May to 7 November, just 55,367have been “recorded in the contact tracing software”, under 75 per cent. It’s not clear if this is because these people do not have any close contacts, they can’t get details for their close contacts, or both, but it’s a worryingly large number of people. And of that 55,367, 209,554 contacts have been traced, so just under four contacts per person. There is no figures on how many close contacts have not been reached (which is a worry in itself), but under four contacts per person is not a high figure, though better than Spain (2.9 per person). In Taiwan it’s 17 contacts per person. Germany, which has been praised for the effectiveness of its federal contact tracing system, has admitted it cannot properly trace 75 per cent of contacts until case numbers are brought down considerably, a clear weakness but at least one it is transparent about.
The First Minister has said it’s a “disservice” to the contact tracing team to question the system, but it’s the effectiveness of the structure established by her government that is being questioned, not the individual efforts of those involved. While there are clear weaknesses and holes in the data, it’s only right that we continue to search for answers.
Source Direct is a free morning newsletter providing you with all the latest Scottish news in your inbox each morning, including:
- Analysis of the key stories
- A summary of what’s in the Scottish papers
- The latest on Source
- Interesting opinion pieces from around Scottish media
To sign-up for Source Direct, click here.