By Bill Heaney
Scottish Labour Party leader Richard Leonard has expressed condolences to the all the families who have lost loved ones and friends during the pandemic.
Not least to the families of Dumbarton care worker Catherine Sweeney, pictured right, and Janice Graham, two front-line workers who have lost their lives to Covid-19 over the past few days.
He told the Holyrood parliament: “We applaud the efforts of all those front-line workers who are, in the end, saving lives and at times putting their own lives at risk in so doing. It is a national collective effort, but they are very much leading it.”
Mr Leonard said this was “all the more reason why I want to return to the issue that has arisen over the past few days about the guidance issued by the chief nursing officer on personal protective equipment, which has caused a good deal of concern among people working on the front line.
“Those who are working in the community providing home care or district nursing services, for example, are already under pressure and are being put under even more stress and pressure.
Richard Leonard, the Scottish Parliament and Nicola Sturgeon.
“Can the First Minister give a categorical reassurance that workers in the community on the front line will receive the right and adequate personal protective equipment that they need,” he asked Nicola Sturgeon.
She replied: “The issue around the guidance is not so much about the supply of PPE—we continue to work hard to maintain that supply and to distribute PPE.
“Every care worker should feel that they can wear a mask unless, in their professional judgment, they do not need to do so.”
The Labour leader said: “The World Health Organization continues to advise, Test, test, test. The national clinical director told the BBC that 5,000 health and care workers have been tested in Scotland.
“How many health and care workers have requested to be tested? Out of those 5,000 people, can we get a breakdown of how many of them are care workers and how many are national health service workers? What are the current rates of absenteeism in the NHS and in our care services?”
“The First Minister said the absenteeism rate in the NHS related to the virus has been around 6 per cent and that it was being “monitored carefully”.
She added: “On a daily basis, we are increasing the numbers of healthcare staff—and, where appropriate, their family members and close contacts—that we are testing. We hope to update the 5,000 figure that we have given in the next couple of days and I would obviously expect it to be higher at that point.
Testing, testing, testing. A healthcare worker prepares to test for coronavirus.
“We are building testing capacity with every day that passes and, by the end of this month, we will have the capacity to do 3,500 tests per day.
“The capacity is more than 2,000 tests per day right now but we will go higher than that. That testing capacity is simply within the NHS; we are also seeking to bring on stream academic and commercial testing capacity.
“Testing is really important. It is important now and it will become really important when we have an exit strategy as a way of going back to the contain phase of the virus, where we test, isolate and trace contacts.”
However, there were “limitations” to the testing – “I want to be clear about the limitations of testing. The current diagnostic test that we are using can tell us whether somebody has the virus while they are symptomatic. That is important but it does not tell somebody who is in the incubation period that they have the virus, nor does it tell people once they have recovered that they have had the virus.
“There are quite narrow windows in which that test allows us to say whether a health worker or another worker would be fit to return to work. They may test negative one day, but they may be in the incubation period and may show up positive the next day.
“The current test is an important tool and we will use it to the maximum capacity, but we also have to understand its limitations and therefore the importance of having in future, we hope, antibody testing, which will allow us to tell whether somebody has had the virus—assuming that that confers an element of immunity.”
Richard Leonard then raised the question of compassionate testing.
He asked: “Will the First Minister commit to look at the case for testing those people who have lost somebody through Covid-19, so that they are not grieving alone?
“Will she also consider the case of those who are receiving end-of-life treatment in our hospices or hospitals and who, frankly, do not want to die alone?
“Is she prepared to agree to the testing of immediate family members of people in that situation? We talk a lot about statistics in discussing this issue but, in the end, it is about human beings.”
The First Minister said she did not challenge the premise of the question, which concerns the importance of compassion in every aspect of our response to this crisis, but said two things: “First, we need to ensure that we are using our testing capacity in the best and most strategic way possible in order to give us the best chance of beating the virus.
“Secondly—although I do not want to negate what I said about the fact that I will look at the issue carefully—there is an effectiveness in testing somebody only when they are symptomatic.
“There is no point testing somebody before they display symptoms or after they have stopped displaying symptoms.
“I come back to that relatively narrow window of opportunity just to illustrate the point that, although there might be many people who want to be tested to show that they do not have the virus or perhaps have had it, the current test is not capable of doing all that.
“Therefore, we continue to use the test where we think that it is most appropriate to do so and where it will help us with the wider efforts against the virus.”