Universities (Covid-19 Testing)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 24th September 2020.

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Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

4. Unfortunately, the window of opportunity for testing international students for Covid-19 on their arrival in Scotland has now passed. I think that we had a duty of care towards them, and I regret the decision that was made not to test them.

Following the recent outbreaks on campuses across the country, we need to do more to track down the virus. I feel for students who are away from home for the first time and who are being forced to self-isolate in halls of residence. I also think of their families, who are many miles away and who are worried about their children’s safety. Both groups deserve reassurance that the health services in Scotland are focused on keeping them safe.

As a significant proportion of people with the virus do not know that they have it, there is a risk they could spread it unknowingly. If they do not know that they have it, we need to help them find that out. It is right to say that students need to stick by the advice, but we need to do so much more, too. Will the First Minister therefore rethink the Scottish Government’s approach to routine testing for students who are asymptomatic?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I, too, feel for students and their families right now. As I have said a couple of times, I am a member of a family that is currently worrying about a student who is in that very position, so I know—not just in theory, but in reality—how that feels.

I do not want to labour the point, because Willie Rennie and I have had exchanges on it before. I accept that he has made a legitimate point, but I stress that international students have an obligation to quarantine. The reason for that, as opposed to requiring them to undergo testing, is that although no system is absolutely perfect, it is felt that quarantine is more effective in those circumstances. If we test someone who comes in and their result is negative, that does not mean that they do not have the virus; it may simply mean that they are in the incubation period. Therefore, requiring them to quarantine for 14 days is a more effective way of protecting against importation of the virus.

That takes me to my other point. Willie Rennie asked whether the Scottish Government would rethink its approach to testing. We are always thinking about that and taking the best clinical advice on it. There is an increased role for surveillance testing, and we are doing more of that.

Willie Rennie is right to say that we need to identify the problem. However, one of the questions right now is what the best solution is in such situations. As could be true of any of us—not just students—someone who does not know that they have the virus, because they are not displaying symptoms, could be tested, but they still might not know that they had the virus. The test might be negative, perhaps because they are in the incubation period or because they are genuinely asymptomatic, in which case the test would not show up the virus. I am not saying that we should never carry out such testing. However, the problem is that we must be careful that a negative test does not then lead a student to say, “I’m fine. I don’t need to bother with isolation or abiding by social distancing and all the other rules.”

Those are careful judgments on which, frankly, I have to take advice, because I am not a clinician or a public health expert. The Scottish Government thinks about such matters on an on-going basis, and we will continue to do so. As every bit of clinical advice that I have tells us right now, the most important things that we need to do are to get symptomatic students tested, which we are doing, and where those tests are positive, to give their contacts the right advice about isolation. That is what is happening right now. The numbers that we are seeing are as high as they are because that system is working in the way that it is intended to. Of course, we also need to work with students, and others, to achieve better levels of preventing the virus from spreading in the first place.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I accept the First Minister’s argument. However, my concern is that people might relax when they think that they do not have the virus and so will not go the extra mile to stick by the rules, despite all our pleas for them to do so. An extra measure, involving further routine testing, would give us absolute assurance that people who have the virus are definitely isolating and keeping out of the way. Having such an extra safety measure would protect us all.

Yesterday, we were told that some of the local outbreaks across our country had occurred because of travellers returning from Greece. The quarantine spot-check system would therefore seem to be an important defence against the virus, yet it has experienced repeated problems over several weeks. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice said that the spot checks were working well, when they had not even started. He changed the target figure, and then changed it again—but the system is still missing more than 1,100 people.

Under the new target, 20 per cent of arrivals who are required to quarantine—it is not limited, as the previous target one was, to a figure of 450 people—are to receive a spot check. However, only 9 per cent are receiving a check, or around half of what the target is supposed to be. When will the Government get on top of quarantine spot checks?

The First Minister:

Additional resources are being applied to that. By 5 October, the system will be doing the full 20 per cent, although it is already doing more than the target of 450 people.

I remind Willie Rennie that 100 per cent of the people coming into the country from places on the quarantine list are emailed, so there is contact with everybody. The other point—and I accept that this is partly a reflection of the summer holiday season ending—is that our contact tracers are seeing a reduction in the number of positive cases coming through our test and protect data in which foreign travel is identified, so that is positive news as well.

Of course, it is because we saw information about Greece coming through the system that we applied quarantine measures to Greece, so the system is giving us the information to direct some of our efforts.

These are all perfectly legitimate issues. Even if I am not saying all the things that people want me to be saying right now, please be assured that we are thinking through, considering and reconsidering these things every single day.

Willie Rennie’s initial point in his second question is valid but, in a sense, it misses the other side of the issue. If it is the case—and I think that he is right—that people, perhaps particularly young people, who do not have symptoms relax and do not think that they are at risk, there is a genuine question about whether giving somebody a test result that is negative, even though they may have the virus, makes them more or less relaxed. That is an open question and it is part of the considerations that we have to go through in terms of the tactical use of testing.

The fundamentally important point about the use of testing right now is to get to those who have symptoms and, if they are positive, to isolate their contacts, and that is what test and protect is focusing on. Although I am the last person to demonstrate any complacency about any of this, test and protect is working well right now and that is a great credit to everybody in that system who is working so hard.