Testing … testing … one two three …
By Bill Heaney
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon took the nip when LibDem leader Willie Rennie asked her why she is “always behind the curve when it comes to testing” for Covid 19.
Mr Rennie told parliament: “The First Minister opposed the testing of students until there were big outbreaks in universities.
“She criticised the use of lateral flow tests in Liverpool, claiming that they were politically motivated, and then, well after the start of the second wave, she changed her mind
“She refused to implement airport testing until months after holidaymakers brought the virus back from abroad.
“Now, she has the capacity to use polymerase chain reaction tests, but she refuses to use most of them.
“On testing, why does the Government always shut the stable door after the horse has bolted?”
Looking not a little exasperated, the FM replied: “Sometimes I wonder whether, when Willie Rennie scripts his questions, it ever crosses his mind what my possible motivation could be for opposing all those things.
“If I really thought that they could help us beat this virus and save lives, why on earth would I oppose them?”
She denied being infallible: “The Scottish Government does not always get it right; I would be the last to say that we do. We make mistakes. We have done so during the course of this pandemic, and we have tried to learn as we go. We try to understand technology, its uses and the pros and cons of it in order to make informed decisions.
“The reason why it is important to make that point about testing, on today of all days, is that south of the border not so long ago, before Christmas, a big announcement was made about the roll-out of lateral flow testing in schools to every pupil, daily. That has today been paused because it is not practical and it is not sensible to do testing in that way.
“We try to ensure that we get things as right as we possibly can. We have not had lateral flow tests in volume—or indeed at all—until relatively recently in the pandemic, and there is still mixed opinion on where to use them and how effective they are.
Nicola Sturgeon, Willie Rennie in testing debate at Holyrood.
“That is part of the reason why the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency did not give the go-ahead to what was wanted in schools in England. The tests are an addition to what has been done through PCR testing. We need to continue to consider things like that very carefully.
“I hope that people will agree that I am one of the last people to stand here and be in any way complacent about the challenge that we face right now. We are in a precarious, difficult position and people are living under horrendous restrictions, so the situation is not good.
“However, if we are doing everything as wrong as Willie Rennie keeps suggesting that we are, why is it that—albeit that we are in a very difficult position—throughout this pandemic case rates have been, and remain, so much lower here than in the other UK nations and other parts of Europe?
“We have a lot to do and learn, and of course we make mistakes, but people might sometimes want to reflect on the fact that we do not always get everything wrong.”
Willie Rennie was himself a bit annoyed: “God forbid that we ever ask questions of the First Minister when we think that she gets it wrong. The reason why I question her is that the evidence is clear that the First Minister is always behind the curve on testing.
“I have just read out the list of examples of where she initially opposed it, and then supported it only a week later. However, she did so only after there were big outbreaks. We needed the tests before the outbreaks.
PCR testing capacity should be deployed at supermarkets, Royal Mail sorting offices such as the one above at Alexandria, West Dunbartonshire, says Willie Rennie.
“Last week, for example, I proposed that PCR testing capacity should be deployed at supermarkets, Royal Mail sorting offices and police stations, where people are working on the front line. Once again, the First Minister said no. As a result, 50,000 tests go unused every single day.
“Since Christmas, the SNP Government has failed to use almost a million gold standard—that is the phrase that it uses—PCR tests; to be precise, that means that 908,585 potential tests have been wasted. “The First Minister says that she is saving them for a rainy day. Well, if the First Minister has not noticed, it is bucketing down outside.
“We have no idea when schools will reopen, operations are being cancelled at hospitals, businesses are on their knees and we are being told not to leave our homes.
“How bad does it have to get before the SNP Government uses those tests to detect the virus that is hiding in our communities?”
The First Minister said: “Can we clear one thing up at the outset? Just because I disagree with Willie Rennie, I think that he is downright wrong and does not necessarily always understand the issues he asks me about and I take issue with the fact that he puts words in my mouth that I have never used does not mean that I do not like or accept being asked questions.
“During the course of this pandemic I have probably answered more questions than any leader anywhere else in the world, and along the way I have probably admitted to more mistakes.
“That is not necessarily because we have made more but because we have been up front in conceding that we have made them.
“Willie Rennie has to recognise that, if he wants to ask those questions—as he is absolutely right to—and I sometimes do not think that he is getting it right, I also have the right to say so.”
She added: “Willie Rennie says that we have failed to use all those PCR tests. Those tests are there so that people can be tested when they have symptoms. Remember, if you have symptoms, you should self-isolate and get tested.
“If we had used all those symptomatic tests, we would have a prevalence and an incidence rate that was many times higher than it is. That would not be a good thing; it would be a bad thing and a terrible position for us to be in.
“On the issue of the wider use of testing, we evaluate and take advice. We look at where we can use testing strategically and tactically.
“Perhaps Willie Rennie would have preferred us to stand up before Christmas and say that we were going to test every pupil in every school every day, and then to have me stand here now to say that we cannot do that because we got that wrong.
“We have decided to do it differently so that, when we launch testing programmes, we try to get them right and we make sure that they contribute overall to having case levels that are lower than those in many other countries and, hopefully, seeing case rates coming firmly down in the coming weeks.”