SNP ministers have been urged to axe the “increasingly redundant” Test and Protect contract tracing system and divert funding to help revive over-stretched NHS services.
The Scottish Conservatives will make the appeal in the party’s ‘back to normality’ blueprint, published today, which will include a call for Nicola Sturgeon to wind up the Test and Protect programme.
The First Minister will update MSPs this afternoon on the Scottish Government’s response to the pandemic.
The plea comes amid concern over soaring waiting times and staff shortages in the NHS.
SNP Health Secretary Humza Yousaf yesterday acknowledged that “there is still significant pressure” on the NHS despite Scotland being over the peak of the Omicron spike, but warned it is possible another variant of concern could emerge.
Test and Protect has struggled to keep up with a soaring number of positive cases due to the more transmissible Omicron variant and wider use of lateral flow testing – but improvements have been seen as case numbers have fallen in recent weeks.
In the 2020-21 financial year, outside of UK Government funding for national testing programmes, the Scottish Government spent £152 million on the Test and Protect project and £21 million for capital costs.
Figures from Public Health Scotland show that in the week ending January 23, out of almost 55,000 cases, more than 16,000 were classed as incomplete – with the vast majority due to people failing to respond to contact tracers.
Conservatives have warned that only around 40 per cent of cases were being reached during the peak of the Omicron surge and many people are still only being contacted by text message.
The Scottish Tories will today call for a move away from mass contract tracing towards representative sampling at a much lower cost to public bodies.
The party has claimed that the Test and Protect services has now become less useful in the pandemic response now that PCR tests are not necessary to confirm someone has Covid.
Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary, Dr Sandesh Gulhane, said: “This policy paper is a blueprint for how we return to normality in the near future.
“We are urging the Government to adopt a new, more targeted approach to Covid. We would place a higher emphasis on protecting vulnerable groups and trusting the public, instead of blanket restrictions such as mandating face masks in classrooms.
“One of the key proposals is replacing Test and Protect. It was incredibly useful in earlier stages of the pandemic but it has become increasingly redundant in recent months.”
He added: “We are nearing the point where Test and Protect is no longer an effective use of scarce NHS resources.
“As we start to move beyond the pandemic, our approach must adapt to fit the new situation.”
Scottish Labour’s health spokesperson, Jackie Baillie, has warned that NHS staffing shortages “haven’t been addressed for years”.
She added: “What we have seen is waiting lists getting longer, cancelled operations up and real challenges for people.
“One in nine of the population of Scotland is stuck on a waiting list and there is no sign of catch-up or recovery.
“So whilst we would all want the NHS to keep people safe – and the staff work incredibly hard – remobilising the NHS has to be a key priority.
“At the moment, that simply isn’t happening.”
Health Secretary Humza Yousaf yesterday acknowledged that Scotland is “through perhaps the worst” of the Omicron spike, but insisted “there is still significant pressure” facing the health service.
He added: “That pressure comes from the continued number of Covid patients, they’re just under 1,000, thankfully, who are in hospital with Covid.
“It also comes from the cumulative impact of two years of a pandemic and having to catch up with that significant backlog.”
Mr Yousaf said that “our recovery is going to have to work around what is currently still a quite fragile state.”
He added: “Any clinician or public health expert that I’ve spoken to, nobody suggested that Omicron was the last variant that we’ll see.”
Meanwhile, the Scottish LibDems has called for action after out of 100,000 Scots diagnosed with long Covid, only 1,157 have bee referred to support service offered by Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland.
Scottish LibDem leader, Alex Cole-Hamilton, said: “Fewer than 1% of sufferers have been referred to the long Covid support service offered by Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland, since it was announced by the First Minister a year ago.
“This is the principal government-funded service to help people with this debilitating condition.
“On Thursday the FM told me there was no need for her to intervene but Chest, Heart and Stroke Scotland are pleading for the government to do things differently.
“The charity want to see the First Minister ensure that automatic referrals are put in place across the county so that sufferers don’t miss out. She should use her statement to announce those changes.”