Health Secretary Jeane Freeman is facing calls for fish disease testing machines on Shetland to be adapted so they can detect the presence of coronavirus in islanders.
The plea was made by Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart, who highlighted concerns about the speed and effectiveness of the testing regime in her constituency because swabs had to be processed on the mainland.
Ms Freeman said ministers were considering converting testing equipment that can be found in the private sector, but had to be reassured that it was accurate enough.
“There are two machines in Shetland normally used for testing fish diseases – one at Grieg’s Salmon, the other at SSQC (Shetland Seafood Quality Control). The Cabinet Secretary will be aware that in Faroe increased testing capacity was achieved by using similar equipment,” Ms Wishart said.
The Lib Dem MSP asked Ms Freeman what consideration was being given to a similar approach in Shetland.
The Health Secretary said “scaling up” of NHS laboratories, public agency labs and those in the private sector was under way.
Further use of private and veterinary public agency laboratories was also under “active consideration”.
“To do that we have to make sure the machines are the right ones for the PCR test that we use – that is the test that has 91% accuracy in terms of sensitivity and around 90% accuracy in terms of being able to identify this kind of virus as well as other viruses,” Ms Freeman said.
She added that the supply of chemical reagents and other equipment had to be taken into account.
Faroe has been successful in repurposing equipment and laboratories used to test fish to test for coronavirus. If that could be done in Shetland too, those options should be fully explored.”
On Ms Wishart’s suggestion that test swabs were going to the mainland, Ms Freeman said: “It is not my understanding at this point that we would be expecting swabs from Shetland to come to the mainland in order to be run through the test. My understanding is that we now have labs in all our territorial health boards, but I am happy to check that for the member,” she said.
But Ms Freeman admitted that swabs taken by the UK Government’s mobile testing units had to be sent to the Lighthouse Laboratory in Glasgow.
Ms Freeman went on to acknowledge that “speed of turnaround” for the result was critical for the “effectiveness” of testing.
Ms Wishart said: “Shetland tests sent to the mainland for processing can take days to come back with a result. Whilst there are geographical challenges to overcome, all avenues must be explored to improve the situation.
“Faroe has been successful in repurposing equipment and laboratories used to test fish to test for coronavirus. If that could be done in Shetland too, those options should be fully explored.”