Front-line workers are making their voices heard. The Scottish Government has been sent not one, but two, open letters from those we most rely on to battle Covid-19, expressing their unhappiness at insufficient and inadequate PPE. 100 medical professionals have signed a letter stating they have “grave concerns about the adequacy of what has been given”, while hundreds of social carers state plainly to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in their open letter that: “We do not feel safe at work. You have lost our confidence by publishing guidance without consultation with front line workers and by forcing us to work with insufficient PPE.”
So it’s a safe bet that PPE will be top of the Scottish Government’s to-do list today. But we’re highlighting another issue, one that won’t go away. Community tracing and testing. Common Weal are today publishing an analysis by head of policy & research Craig Dalzell today on why the WHO’s advice to “test, test, test” cannot continue to be ignored in Scotland. He identifies a fact that will get you sitting up in your chair this morning. If the current trend of deaths and confirmed cases of Covid-19 were to continue north of the border, the number of deaths would exceed the number of confirmed cases by the end of this month.
Dalzell finds that Scotland is doing six tests per positively identified case, ahead of the UK (4), but almost four times behind Germany (23) and nearly eight times behind South Korea (46). It’s no coincidence that these latter two countries appear to be doing a far better job in controlling the outbreak. Community tracing and testing matters, not because it stops the spread of the virus, but it means you are not operating blind in attempting to do so. You know where the hotspots are, who is susceptible and who is an asymptomatic carrier, and accordingly what sort of health and physical distancing measures you need in place, with resources deployed when and where necessary. Even countries that are now seeing cases drop risk a sharp rise after lockdown if they don’t also develop a detailed data profile that can only be attained through testing.
Catherine Calderwood, now Scotland’s former Chief Medical Officer, has described community testing as in danger of becoming a media “distraction”, saying it was a “fallacy” to suggest it would stop the spread of the virus. No one said it would alone, but the WHO has been crystal clear that it’s a key part of the toolbox for every country. Calderwood’s dismissive position fits with what the Scottish Government has done up until now, which has been in lock-step with the UK Government’s laissez-faire approach to community tracing and testing. 12 March is an important date in this respect. That was the day the UK Government announced that it was moving to the “delay” phase of containing The Coronavirus. It also coincides exactly with when a dramatic slow down in the rate of positive testing for cases in Scotland can be observed, as contact tracing stopped completely for the “delay” phase.
No one can say we don’t have the labour force. Expert contact tracers are already employed in Local Authorities, as environmental health officers across the country are trained in these skills, but have inexplicably not been called upon during this crisis to apply them. One anonymous environmental health worker from a Scottish council told The Guardian: “If councils had been given the go-ahead from the start, they could have put plans in place and now have a much flatter curve.” Another said he was “struggling to figure out” why this never happened.
There are now clear signs that even the UK Government’s scientific advisors accept a wrong turn was taken. Answering a question from ITV Political Editor Robert Peston yesterday about what the UK can learn from Germany, the Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty answered: “We all know Germany got ahead in terms of its ability to do testing for the virus and there’s a lot to learn from that.”
You are too right they’ve got ahead – of the UK. Just compare the death rates. The UK already has more than three times as many deaths from Covid-19 than Germany, while having half the number of confirmed cases. That’s nothing short of a disgrace, and it can’t be explained away with whataboutery.
Looking ahead, Dalzell is unequivocal about what now must happen in Scotland to start making up lost ground: “The Scottish Government must change track now. It must adopt, in full, the WHO’s pandemic strategies, and must do it quickly.”