Covid-19 (Brazilian Variant)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 2nd March 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

1. To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the detection of the so-called Brazilian variant of Covid-19 in Scotland. (S5T-02690)

Photo of Jeane Freeman Jeane Freeman Scottish National Party

Three cases of the Covid-19 variant of concern, which was first identified in Japan but which is associated with Manaus in Brazil, have been identified in Scotland. They relate to three individuals who travelled from Brazil to Aberdeen via Paris and London. As members would expect, contact tracing has been undertaken and close contacts have been followed up and offered testing, as usual.

In an additional precautionary step, the close contacts of those contacts have been identified and followed up. That additional step is being taken to ensure that all possible precautions are under way. Passengers on the Heathrow to Aberdeen flight on the afternoon of 29 January, flight BA1312, are being contacted. However, because not all the data that we have received about its passengers is correct, we are asking anyone on that flight who did not provide up-to-date contact details to call the national health service national contact tracing centre on 0800 030 8012.

There is currently no evidence of community transmission, but that is of course being closely monitored by Public Health Scotland and the public health team at NHS Grampian, with our national clinical advisers in close contact with both.

The variant is of concern because of the possibility that it is more contagious than the current dominant Covid-19 strain in Scotland and because of how it responds to current vaccines. The extensive and detailed work to reach a confirmed expert view on both those aspects continues.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the Brazilian variant has now been found in 15 countries that are not on the United Kingdom Government’s red list. Does the cabinet secretary accept that current border restrictions cannot adequately protect people in Scotland from this concerning strain of Covid-19?

Photo of Jeane Freeman Jeane Freeman Scottish National Party

I absolutely do, as does the Scottish Government, which is why we want much tougher protections on our international borders, around the whole UK, for all international travellers. As Ms Johnstone rightly says, the variant has been detected in other countries that are not currently on the red list.

It is important to recognise that, although we have advanced genomic sequencing capacity in Scotland and in the rest of the UK, that is not necessarily the case in countries around the globe. Therefore, it is difficult for those countries to know whether they have any particular variant, which makes it difficult for the global position to be understood. One of the key ways that it can be understood—with citizens here and elsewhere therefore protected—is to have that managed isolation system and the testing that is part of it, so that genomic sequencing can be carried out and variants can be identified.

As Ms Johnstone knows, the point of the virus, like all viruses, is to mutate whenever it is given the opportunity, and it is those mutations that we need to be able to identify quickly and against which we can then act in order to protect our citizens.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

Can the cabinet secretary advise us what proportion of samples are currently being sequenced to detect strains of concern? Does Scotland have access to an adequate proportion of UK capacity? What action is the Scottish Government taking to increase genome sequencing capacity in Scotland?

Photo of Jeane Freeman Jeane Freeman Scottish National Party

Genomic sequencing is carried out by COG-UK, as the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium is known, which has two partner organisations in Scotland, and by NHS Scotland’s sequencing service.

A representative number of positive polymerase chain reaction samples in Scotland are genomically sequenced. That number can be increased when we have situations such as this one, where a variant is identified. The figure is around 4 to 5 per cent in normal times, but it can be increased. Additional testing and sequencing provisions are in place for people returning from travel abroad.

As recently as yesterday, I had a further conversation with our chief medical officer, who will pursue the option of further increasing genomic sequencing capacity in Scotland. As we look ahead, we can undoubtedly see, alongside our increased testing capacity, additional precautionary and protective steps, in that further genomic sequencing on the basis of an increased sampling of positive PCR tests might give us further protection measures.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

Having read about the circumstances surrounding the three people from the north-east who came back from Brazil with the new strain, I have concerns about the risk of new strains being brought in by people who start their journeys in high-risk areas but travel via airport hubs in countries that are not currently deemed to be high risk. I am concerned that people are not being required to quarantine at their point of entry into the UK, to prevent them from spreading infection as they make their way to their final destinations.

Given that new strains can take time to be identified, is it not time that the UK Government followed Scotland and adopted the same policy of quarantine for arrivals from every country and not just those that are deemed to be high risk at a certain point? I would be interested to hear what conversations have been had with the UK Government on all those points.

Photo of Jeane Freeman Jeane Freeman Scottish National Party

I completely agree with all the points that Ms Martin made. The instance that we are talking about exemplifies why our Scottish Government approach of requiring much tighter controls on all our international borders is so important. Ms Martin is right, in that the ideal and correct position, on which we continue to press the UK Government, is that, at the very least, passengers whose final destination is Scotland should be required to quarantine at their point of entry and should not come through any of the hubs south of the border to travel to Scotland, which obviously creates a gap in the protective measures that we need to put in place.

My colleague Mr Matheson has those conversations regularly with his counterpart and I know that the First Minister has raised the issue, certainly on more than one occasion. I raise the issue at the regular four-nations health ministers meetings that I have, which are at least weekly at the moment, and I know that my colleagues elsewhere share those concerns. Even if we stick with the red list, the question is how quickly countries that should enter the red list can be identified—the answer is not very quickly, which is a particular concern. The more straightforward and protective approach, which would guard against inward transmission in a better and more proportionate way than is currently the case, is to say that all international arrivals—with the exemptions that are already there—should have to enter managed quarantine.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

The concerns about the Brazil variant of Covid-19 are that it potentially spreads more easily and that it can evade the immune system, leading to re-infections.

Two cases of the variant have been found in south Gloucestershire. There, people are doing surge testing, including door-to-door testing of people who live in particular postcode areas. There are three cases in Aberdeen, so I would be interested to know what the Scottish Government is doing. We have previously raised the need to use all available testing capacity. Is the Scottish Government testing everyone who was on the plane? Will it use surge testing to stop the spread of this much more infectious virus?

Photo of Jeane Freeman Jeane Freeman Scottish National Party

I welcome Ms Baillie to her new portfolio and look forward to our constructive engagement in the remaining weeks of the parliamentary session.

What we are doing around the three cases in Aberdeen is targeted testing. Let me take that in steps. Two of the individuals required hospital treatment. All staff who were in contact with those individuals have been tested—that is in addition to the regular testing that our national health service staff undergo, of course. There is a connection with a local school, so there is testing for the people involved there. Testing is also offered to close contacts who have been experiencing symptoms and to passengers and crew from the Heathrow to Aberdeen flight, whom we are contacting, should they experience any symptoms—remembering the time lag between the date of that flight and now. That is the basis on which that work is being undertaken.

My understanding from Public Health England is that what is happening potentially relates to a later flight, which arrived from Brazil via, I think, Zurich. Because those cases were not initially isolated in the way in which our cases were, I can understand the sense of surge testing in that regard.

The decision about testing and how it is used is, of course, clinically led by our colleagues in public health.