Neil Findlay

Neil Findlay

Scotland: Following UK into Covid-19 failure

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Scotland has followed the UK Government’s approach to the Coronavirus pandemic, even as the UK’s death rates out-paced those of many other countries. Scottish Labour MSP Neil Findlay says the Scottish Government’s approach of maintaining ‘lock step‘ with the UK is costing lives.

On the weekend of 22 March, the Executive Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Mike Ryan, repeated his call for the UK and other countries to test, test and test again, everyone suspected to have the Coronavirus and to “isolate it and go after it.” Once tests are carried out, people must then self-isolate for the appropriate length of time. There was no caveat to his advice and no mention of a phased approach. And this came from an organisation that is in the frontline of monitoring, understanding and advising on global pandemic management. These people know their stuff. So why are we not following what they tell us to do?

In contrast to Boris Johnson’s bumbling and mixed messages, Nicola Sturgeon communicates her lines with clarity. But, and this is a huge but, the central message is exactly the same. Both are following a failing strategy. Both are ignoring the experience of China, Taiwan, South Korea, Germany, Ireland and other countries who are reducing deaths and managing the virus better than we are.

The advice from the Asian nations, firstly, was to take things very seriously from the outset, yet only last month Professor Jason Leitch, the Scottish Government’s Chief Clinician was on TV telling Piers Morgan that it was ok that his wife attended a pop concert with thousands of people in attendance and that pensioners might want to think about not going to the Bingo. This was the same government advisor who also thought it fine that the Old Firm game should go ahead. I’m not sure this is the level of seriousness the WHO had in mind. It is self evident that the U-turn on these issues was brought about by public pressure.

Secondly; test, test, test. From the start of this crisis I have asked Nicola Sturgeon, Health Secretary Jeane Freeman and Jason Leitch why we are not following the WHO advice to test everyone suspected of having Coronavirus. The answer I got was: “if somebody was self-isolating and tested positive, the advice that they would get would not change in any way from the advice that they are getting right now.” This is not a justification for not testing – it is an excuse for being completely ill prepared and not having the relevant testing resources in place. We still don’t.

I cannot say this enough; we must test, test and test again to ensure that people know whether or not they have the virus and are, therefore, a carrier. It is insanity to send NHS workers, including my family members, into hospitals full of sick people and not test them regularly. If we don’t test them then they risk spreading the infection to wards full of people, putting many more lives at risk.

However, it is not enough to simply test and confirm the result, we need to ensure people who test positive self-isolate and stick to it for the duration. This can be assisted by the use of technology. Some countries have even given the Police a role in ensuring carriers comply and stay at home. This may not be something we have seen before as it is alien to our culture of health care, policing and civil liberties, but these are unprecedented times, many thousands of lives are at stake, we have to think very differently. We have to save lives.

On 22 March Scotland tested just 420 people. We are now, a month later, still only testing on average around 1000 a day. This is nowhere near the level of testing required. In my health region, Lothian, there is no community testing facility available. Where are the Irish style drive through community testing facilities that anyone can turn up to with a referral from their GP?

As of 18 April Ireland reported 15251 cases of the virus and 610 deaths, in contrast Scotland reported 7820 cases and 893 deaths. Scotland and the UK are heading for some of the highest death rates of any country. These figures testify to the success of Ireland’s widespread use of community testing.

Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University has said: “Covid’s spread in the UK and US was entirely predictable, largely preventable and utterly tragic.” She went on to say that: “It’s increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that Britain’s failure to follow any reasonable public health advice from the World Health Organisation and others to contain this outbreak is strategic.”

What this means in my view is that the constituent parts of the UK have collectively taken a deliberate decision to ignore the WHO, the leading experts in global pandemic management, and in doing so many more people will get the virus, many of whom will die.

From the outset, the herd immunity notion has been supported unquestioningly by the Scottish Government – that is, they expected a large percentage of the population to be exposed to the virus. Scotland and UK are in lockstep.

There was no strategy or buy-in for the test, trace isolate advice of the WHO, therefore no work went into it. Contact tracing was dismissed. This was a major strategic mistake, which no one wants to accept. Therefore the first minister, the health secretary, the chief medical officer and the national clinical director will continue to repeat sceptical lines about the efficacy of community testing and tracing, no matter the evidence to the contrary. Action on the ground to implement a test, trace, isolate approach remains almost non-existent.

In the meantime, more people will die unnecessarily – and many of these deaths will have been wholly avoidable. Yesterday the Financial Times estimated the real level of UK deaths from Coronavirus to be more than double the official UK government figure. We can expect a similarly tragic toll in Scotland. These are dark, dark times compounded by a failure to heed advice and recognise and correct mistakes.

Picture courtesy of Scottish Government

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