Scotland's Test and Protect contact tracing system 'working up to five times worse than thought'

Simon Johnson
A coding error has been discovered in Scotland's Test and Protect system - Getty Images Europe
A coding error has been discovered in Scotland's Test and Protect system - Getty Images Europe

Nicola Sturgeon yesterday insisted her coronavirus tracing system was working well despite her government publishing "wildly inaccurate" figures that disguised its failure to contact around half those who recently tested positive.

Public Health Scotland (PHS) has been forced to revise its Test and Protect statistics after admitting that the data contained errors, with the update showing the system is performing up to five times worse than previously claimed.

The updated data highlights that in five of eight weeks in September and October, Test and Protect officials did not contact about half of positive cases within 24 hours of being notified of swab results.

John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister, blamed a "coding error" for hugely overestimating the number of people contacted and insisted the system was still performing better than the World Health Organisation (WHO) benchmark.

Ms Sturgeon admitted the mistake "means some cases classed as processed within zero to 24 hours should have fallen within the 24 to 48 hours" but insisted Test & Protect was "working well".

But Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, said it "beggars belief this has gone unnoticed for months" and warned "this risks harming our ability to fight the spread of the virus."

The corrected figures, disclosed by the Scottish Sun, showed the proportion of those testing positive being alerted within 24 hours of Test and Protect being notified dropped as low as 41.7 per cent in one of the weeks.

Following the revision, overall positive cases waiting more than 24 hours to be interviewed after Test and Protect was notified almost doubled from 8,262 to 15,291 and contact tracing cases taking more than a day to complete surged from 17,225 to 23,828.

Data for the week ending Oct 25 originally showed that 29.3 per cent of cases were contacted within 24 hours of a test being taken, but the figure was revised to just 7.5 per cent. 

The error was disclosed the day after Ms Sturgeon increased Covid-19 restrictions in three council areas and warned 10 more they face near-full lockdown unless their infection rates improve.

Nicola Sturgeon is her pressure over Test and Protect contact tracing system - Getty Images Europe
Nicola Sturgeon is her pressure over Test and Protect contact tracing system - Getty Images Europe

Mr Ross said: "To discover the SNP government has been peddling wildly inaccurate data to the public is shocking. It beggars belief that this has gone unnoticed for months."

Monica Lennon, Scottish Labour's health spokesman, said: "Test and Protect is crucial to containing Coronavirus but with only around half of cases being contacted within 24 hours of Test and Protect being notified, people will be feeling bitterly disappointed, especially those living in areas forced into higher tiers." 

Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said: "For months I have been asking the First Minister about the performance of Test and Protect. For months she has insisted it was working very well even though the virus continued to spread across the country."

Mr Swinney told BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme: "There's been a coding error with the way in which the results have been entered into the data system, that has now been corrected and the data is being re-presented.

"But I think what is important is that we focus on the fact that the World Health Organisation states that at least 80 per cent of new cases must have their close contacts traced and in quarantine within 72 hours of case confirmation."

He said 97.1 per cent of all contact tracing of all positive cases was completed within 72 hours last week.

PHS said the coding error has not affected any strategic or operational decision-making on the contact tracing programme.

Speaking at her daily briefing, Ms Sturgeon said: “Test and Protect is working well. Like any system it is not going to be perfect - the coding error should not have happened, but it happened and these things do happen in computer systems sometimes.”

She also said Aberdeen City Council was wrong to tell its teachers to switch off the Protect Scotland contact tracing app amid concerns about its accuracy.

A letter sent out by the council to schools said teachers had wrongly been told to self-isolate by the app and advised that they remove or disable it when in school buildings. Monica Lennon, Scottish Labour's health spokeswoman, said she was aware of similar advice being issued in other parts of the country.