Jeane Freeman has denied a “coding error” that masked the fact Scotland’s contract tracing system was five times less effective than previously claimed led to an increased spread of coronavirus.
The health secretary was accused of “defending the indefensible” on Wednesday as she faced a grilling from MSPs over the blunder, which led to an overestimation of the number of people traced within 24 hours of a contact testing positive for Covid-19.
The real figures, first reported by The Scottish Sun, showed the system performing up to five times worse than previously thought, with contact tracing taking longer than 72 hours to complete in some cases.
The Scottish Government has confirmed the error has now been fixed, after Public Health Scotland first raised the alarm on November 4.
During an urgent question at the Scottish Parliament, Ms Freeman was asked whether the issue had resulted in an increased spread of Covid-19 in September and October, with system issues hiding failures in the Test and Protect programme.
Scottish Labour’s Jackie Baillie described the situation as “truly staggering” and said it had undermined public confidence in the system, with contact tracing falling to a “miniscule” 3.9% of positive cases in one week in September.
But the health secretary, who was rebuked by the presiding officer for taking questions on the issue from journalists during a time slot when he had initially hoped to schedule the urgent debate, said she did not believe the problem had led to increased transmission.
Ms Freeman said the information that was “miscoded and wrong” did not prevent the system from “far exceeding” the World Health Organisation‘s requirement for 80% of new cases to have their close contacts traced and in quarantine within 72 hours.
In fiery exchanges with opposition MSPs, she said: “It is unfair and entirely wrong to the staff who are working so hard in our Test and Protect system. It’s not me that is doing Test and Protect, it is those staff.
“They are working hard, they are working long hours, they are doing exceptionally well and they are helping us to suppress the virus.
“Now you might not like that answer, and clearly on both sides of this chamber you don’t, but the facts are the facts are the facts, and you are wrong.”
The latest figures, for the week up to November 8, show 95.8% of contact tracing of all positive cases was completed within 72 hours.
Speaking at the Scottish Government’s daily coronavirus briefing earlier in the day, first minister Nicola Sturgeon also stressed that the system had not failed to meet the WHO target during the period.
‘Test and Protect is working well’
She said: “In fact, 88.7% was completed within 48 hours so Test and Protect was exceeding the WHO standard for 72 hours within 48 hours. So Test and Protect is working well.
“Like any system, it is not going to be perfect, the coding error should not have happened but it happened, these things do happen. It has been rectified.”
Scottish Conservative counterpart Douglas Ross criticised the “wildly inaccurate” data and said it “beggars belief that this has gone unnoticed for months”.
Mr Ross said: “However, it’s not just about dodgy data; this risks harming our ability to fight the spread of the virus.
“We need answers and reassurance on this as a matter of urgency.”
Public Health Scotland said the coding error has not affected any strategic or operational decision-making on the contact tracing programme.