AT long last a new contact tracing methodology is being piloted across three Scottish health boards.

With 600 new trained workers in place, the exercise will test out software to collect data on a large scale, to build on existing contact tracing technology as part of a wider roll-out to extend testing, tracing and isolating measures along with support by the end of May. Only with this working effectively will Scotland safely and gradually be able to move out of lockdown.

This will be a massive relief to many people across this nation desperate for the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) long-standing advice to be implemented in Scotland and who have been perplexed and frustrated as to why public servants, experienced in confronting infectious disease in environmental health and livestock departments, have been left cooling their heels while the pandemic ripped through the nation and in particular through the nation’s care homes. The very hard truth is that if Covid-19 had been a deadly animal disease then Scotland would have dealt with it much more effectively.

Other countries across the world large and small have followed WHO advice with great success. The Far East countries, with their prior experience of Sars, were first off the blocks, which is why South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong have such outstanding records.

However small, countries such as New Zealand, Iceland, Malta and Greece have also shown the way and implemented the test, trace, isolate mantra early on, plus control of borders and adequate PPE and equipment to keep the numbers of fatalities low and testing figures high. Closer to home, the Republic of Ireland, after a very difficult start (perhaps due in no small measure to attendance at the deadly Cheltenham Festival), followed WHO guidelines and now has a relative Covid-19 death rate half of that of the UK. In dealing with deadly infectious disease, “speed trumps perfection”, to quote Michael Ryan, the man in charge of polio eradication at WHO, when tackling a pandemic like this. In the UK we have had neither speed nor perfection. It’s been a series of errors and cover-ups from the get-go.

The public has watched on helplessly as Scotland has been pulled into the vortex of disastrous and devastatingly bad decisions from the UK Government, who decided to stop testing back on March 12, moving from containment to mitigation alongside a late lockdown and the now infamous and widely denied “herd immunity” nostrum.

Now, over two months later with the four-nations lockstep rightly in disarray and England abandoned to a confusingly chaotic and downright dangerous exit strategy, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are finally introducing their own bespoke plans to alleviate lockdown. It is Number 10 who is out of lockstep with the rest of the UK.

Ultimately, with our lives in their hands, no matter how “alert” citizens are, it’s about trust. And trust is gained through honest communication. Transparency and clear messaging alongside tried-and-tested methods is of vital importance at this late stage in the initial pandemic. I say initial, because it is possible that a second, even more deadly wave could head our way come winter. To use one of the Prime Minister’s beloved wartime phrases, we may be not at the “beginning of the end” but near the “end of the beginning”.

Next time we will need to be prepared in advance. There can be no question of following London’s lead – the bespoke approach, tailored to Scotland and tied into international best practice is the only way.

Yesterday I heard that old devolution stager Professor Jim Gallagher wheeled out on the BBC to say how in tackling coronavirus, Scotland was “better together” – yes he actually has the gall to say that not once but twice! Ironically, he was making an entirely fair point that the level of testing requires to be exponentially stepped up. However, how can we be “better together” when it was the lethal lockstep with Westminster which saw the abandonment of test, trace and isolate on March 12? If Prof Jim had been advising the Scottish Government at that point would he have told Nicola Sturgeon to follow the Westminster line just in order to be “better together”?

The National: Nicola Sturgeon

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Professor Devi Sridhar, of Edinburgh University, has argued that only by investing in a massive public health infrastructure drive to stamp out the virus will we be able to free ourselves from the devastating effects of continual lockdowns on our economy and society, as wave after successive wave continues until a vaccine is found.

She also points out that lockdowns only buy time – time to gather knowledge on the virus, time to get in place the necessary testing, time to train contact tracers, to highlight support. They can’t go on forever for obvious reasons. So, here we are at the end of nine weeks of lockdown and only now are these measures being put in place across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile England is still dithering on the details, conducting an experiment with an untried app, while playing fast and loose with the numbers of tests and tracers in place.

Contrast our experience with the tiny Faroes, where a vetinary scientist on the islands adapted a test that had been used for a virus on salmon to test for Covid-19 in humans and now almost 20% of the population have been tested. After a worrying spike of cases in March, every single one was traced and isolated. Now the islands are officially virus free, with no new cases and not a single death.

In other words, where there is a political will there is a life-saving way.

In years to come, at the inevitable and many enquiries, one question will never be effectively answered – why didn’t we act sooner? We could have prepared and been in a state of readiness for this inevitable pandemic. We could have acted with speed as it accelerated towards our shores and followed the crystal-clear advice from the WHO.

No doubt, and perfectly legitimately, Scottish Government ministers and senior officials should be asked searching questions as to why a century and more of hard-won experience in tackling outbreaks of serious infectious disease appears to have collapsed in dealing with the now infamous Nike conference in Edinburgh in late February – and it’s clear from press briefings that citing “patient confidentiality” is not going to cut it as any sort of answer.

HOWEVER, the disastrous strategic calamity was the pan-UK official abandonment of testing, tracing and isolating on March 12. The responsibility for this goes right to the door of Number 10, no matter how much they now try desperately to deflect on to secret briefings from nameless scientists and officials. That blame game was in full flow yesterday but the guilty ministers are now well within the crosshairs of the media’s sights.

For Scotland, however, the real question is the one that has dogged our nation since the Act of Union – why did we let another country decide our fate?

We’ll never get these two months back nor the thousands – and it is thousands – of lives that have been needlessly lost as a result, but now at least our lockdown exit strategy has been praised by the WHO for marrying public health needs with economic reality.

It shows what we can do when we take responsibility. And it’s the only way we will be able to protect our citizens and save lives when the second wave comes.