Gordon Brown think tank’s Covid testing claims crumble under scrutiny

“Scotland’s coronavirus detection rate is the worst of the UK nations, according to a report from former prime minister Gordon Brown’s think-tank” – Scotsman headline, 12 January, 2021.

Facts show Scotland instituted a testing regime quicker than England did, identifies more potential infected contacts, and traces them faster. Also, it’s not just the detection rate, it’s what you do with the information.

Former PM Gordon Brown set up the self-styled think tank Our Scottish Future (OSF) in 2019. It claims to “set out a progressive agenda for change in Scotland” and “supports Scotland’s continued place within the UK”. It also claims it wants to use its platform “to set out ways for people from all political backgrounds to come together, with positive ideas for Scotland”.

However, there appears to be a disjuncture between the avowed aims of setting “a positive agenda” and bringing together “people from all political backgrounds” with the stream of relentlessly anti-SNP government papers produced by OSF. For instance, of the last five reports/statements from OSF, all attack the Scottish Government’s alleged handling of the Covid-19 crisis. This negative stance contrasts sharply with the high public confidence ratings received by the First Minister.

READ MORE: ‘It is actually false’: Jason Leitch debunks Gordon Brown’s Scots virus test claim

The OSF website is distinctly anonymous. There is no listing of which individuals run OSF or how it is funded. The launch event of OSF was chaired by noted Unionist Professor Jim Gallagher, a former director-general for devolution in the Cabinet Office under Gordon Brown and now a director of a big City of London insurance group. Gallagher was a key member of the Better Together campaign in 2014, casting doubt over its claims to be a genuine attempt at cross-party co-operation or a search for “progressive policies”.

The latest OSF attack on the Scottish Government concerns the Covid-19 track and trace programme. While admitting (in the small print) that Scotland has “a strong track and trace performance”, OSF claims that only 32% of positive cases are being picked up by testing north of the Border, compared to 41% in England, 70% in Wales and 81% in Northern Ireland.

We should also note that the claimed 32% discovery rate is based on comparing actual positive test results to an estimate of the infection rate. There is an obvious contradiction in OSF claiming Scotland has a poor discovery rate if you are comparing testing to the very number you say the Scottish Government is failing to identify.

The OSF claims refer to a six-week period ending January 2 and use data publicly available from Office for National Statistics and Scottish Government sources. OSF did no research of its own. No name is attached to then report – actually a set of tables and graphs with headlines – but media reports quoted microbiologist Professor Hugh Pennington, a noted Unionist and activist in the 2014 Better Together campaign.

A careful reading of the report shows some of the data (eg on Scottish daily testing capacity) is based on figures from October 2020, nearly three months ago. As of the week ending January 12, the situation has changed considerably. Since the start of the outbreak, a total of 1,460,131 people in Scotland have been tested at least once, or 27% of the population. Between May 28 and January 10, 130,719 individuals were recorded in the contact tracing software, from which 489,311 contacts have been traced.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon disputes methodology used in Our Scottish Future testing report

The OSF is also selective in how it treats the data it uses. In October, Scotland had in place a capacity to test 10,000 people per day. But this compares very favourably with a capacity of 20,000 in England. In other words, Scotland was faster to put in place public testing capacity relative to its population than was the case in England.

The OSF report has to accept this but goes on to say that a “poor detection rate” undermines this advantage. But this political conclusion the OSF fails to justify. In fact, the OSF tables imply the opposite.

First, the turnaround time (percentage of tests completed within 24 hours of sampling) is 56% in Scotland compared to a pathetic 37% in England – data for the six weeks to January 2.

Second, the interview rate and interview speed in Scotland is far better than in England or Wales.

Third, the average number of contacts yielded per interview is 4.1 in Scotland compared to 2.4 in England, 2.7 in Wales and 2.1 in Northern Ireland. Even allowing for differences in the density of infection, the latter suggests a thoroughness and efficiency in the T&T system in Scotland.

Finally, though it is ignored in the OSF press release and subsequent media gloss, the small print of the report actually shows that the impact of T&T in Scotland and England – measured by the OSF as Detection Rate x Interview Rate x Contact Rate – is very comparable (see bottom of table, page 8 of report).

Perhaps the most misleading element in the OSF report is its implicit assumption that T&T is reducing the spread of infections in the rest of the UK while Scotland is suffering from its inability to test and trace. The significant evidence from England is the consistent failure to use the testing data. By the end of 2020, only eight out of 10 people who had tested positive for Covid-19 were being reached by contact tracers, often too late. In cities where tracing was poorest, the infection rate was significantly high. This led Bradford to institute its own test and trace system.

The OSF press release on its report ends categorically: “Scotland’s Test & Protect operation is having no impact on the fight against COVID”. Whatever the flaws in Scotland’s T&T regime, the suggestion that it is “having no impact” will come as news to the 52,850 people tested in the week till 13 January and the 14,306 people who tested positive.

Weak attempt to blame Scottish Government when we should all be pulling together to beat the virus.

The National: National Fact Check False 



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