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Coronavirus testing to ramp up as Scotland heads into winter

Image credit: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images

Coronavirus testing to ramp up as Scotland heads into winter

The Scottish Government will boost its COVID-19 testing programme in the lead up to winter, aiming to increase daily tests by 25,000 and improve access to testing, the Testing Strategy document reveals.

The updated strategy document, released on Monday, discusses the priorities in testing for the three months to November 2020, aiming to use testing “as part of our overall strategy of continuing to drive down cases to as low a level as possible”.

“We know in the winter the challenges may increase. We know this virus transmits more easily indoors, and that people will be spending more time indoors in winter. We know there are risks of other illnesses, including seasonal flu, occurring at the same time as potential increase in COVID transmission,” the strategy said.

“We can see now the likelihood for the demand for testing to grow, testing that will be critical in order to genuinely distinguish COVID from other illnesses. It is not inconceivable for the numbers of people with symptoms compatible with COVID, who will require testing, to be in the tens of thousands per day in winter in Scotland.

“This means one of our core principles of our strategy – that our approach to testing, including prioritisation, is flexible and adaptable to the prevailing conditions of the pandemic at any time – will require genuine translation into action.”

It stated testing capacity would be boosted to 65,000 tests per day, up from the current capacity of 40,000, between NHS Scotland and the Lighthouse Lab in Glasgow.

“We also plan to build resilience and sustainability in our NHS Scotland laboratory capacity on a regional basis. In a proposal delivered in partnership with our clinical and scientific community, we will invest in new equipment on a regional basis, providing additional capacity for a further 10,000 tests a day,” the document said.

“This will ensure that microbiology and virology laboratories have the ability to deliver responsive business as usual testing, and provide resilience and support with the anticipated increased demand as winter pressures drive up the need for COVID-19 testing to differentiate between respiratory infections and COVID-19.”

The document stated there would be some groups that were tested now, who may not be tested in winter, with priority for testing in winter to be given to those “most at risk of the most harm”.

“These decisions may not always be easy. They will require being well informed by those with expertise in every aspect of an effective testing system that makes maximum contribution to minimising harm – from the scientific, clinical, public health communities, virology and microbiology, operational, logistics and delivery expertise, modelling and scenario planning capabilities, and a clear understanding of ethics, acceptability and the impact of any changes to testing eligibility on the whole system.”

On accessibility, the strategy acknowledged current barriers to testing, including that regional test centres and mobile units required access to a car. “We are engaging with the public as we continue to design our testing services and continuously improve their accessibility and usability by different groups,” it said.

“Our Test and Protect engagement work is using feedback from people who have been through the test processes in Scotland to make improvements. We have also launched a dialogue public engagement exercise to better understand barriers to access tests by directly engaging with the public in Scotland.”

Additionally, from September Scotland will participate in the ONS COVID-19 Infection Survey, currently operating in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, representing the “single biggest expansion to date of asymptomatic testing for surveillance purposes in the pandemic”. The survey will see about 15,000 people in Scotland tested during two-week rolling periods, equating to about 9,000 households.

Health secretary Jeane Freeman said the strategy document “clearly sets out the role of testing in our response to COVID-19, which will continue to evolve as the scientific and clinical understanding of the virus develops”.

“We know that meeting this challenge requires a comprehensive set of public health measures to drive the number of cases down – intelligence, anticipation, prevention, mitigation and response and clearly testing has a crucial role – it allows us to get ahead of the curve and track down and contain the virus as far as possible,” she said.

“We will continue to adapt our testing strategy in line with the different stages of the pandemic.  However, testing is only one effective intervention that we are using to manage the virus and it remains vital that people continue to follow physical distancing advice and practice good hand and cough hygiene not just for their own safety but in order to protect others.”

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