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Coronavirus / Health chief says new test and trace strategy could be in place for up to three years

NHS Shetland is preparing to carry out Covid-19 testing and contact tracing for potentially up to three years as the Scottish Government looks to shift the way it responds to coronavirus.

Chief executive Michael Dickson said that it is “imperative that we remember there is no cure or vaccine for the virus”, warning against complacency even if it feels like “situation is under control”.

It comes as the Scottish Government hopes to introduce a new test, trace and isolate system for Covid-19 across the country by the end of May.

The government issued a new paper today (Monday) providing more details about the strategy, which it sees as the “next phase” in the response to coronavirus when lockdown restrictions ease.

NHS Shetland chief executive Michael Dickson. Photo: Shetland News

Echoing how testing panned out in Shetland when the first cases were confirmed in the isles before the national strategy on testing changed, it will see people with symptoms tested, before people who have had close contact with them are traced.

NHS Shetland chief executive Michael Dickson, however, warned that the health board is expecting this process to go on for some time.

“It is an important step in our future management of the virus and we are planning for this process to go on for an extended period – this could be for up to three years,” he told Shetland News on Monday.

“Returning to testing and tracing is not a decision that is taken lightly,” Dickson added. “It is labour and resource intensive.

“However, NHS Shetland has significant experience in this area. This is not just with the first cases but also with the measles outbreak.”

Under the Scottish Government’s new system, anyone who has Covid-19 symptoms would be asked to self-isolate immediately before taking a test. If they are positive, they would isolate for seven days.

Anyone who has been in close contact would be asked to self-isolate for a fortnight. People may face self-isolation not just once, but on a number of occasions.

Close contact includes everyone who has been less than two metres away from a confirmed case for 15 minutes or more.

The government intends to use digital tools to support contact tracing, with a web-based service accessible on smartphones and computers set to allow people to input details of folk they have been in close contact with.

An app is also being developed which uses wireless Bluetooth technology to identify close contacts among other app users, which the government says may be useful for strangers on public transport.

Local contact tracing teams will be supported by a national contact tracing support service which will undertake some of the routine work.

The government anticipates that up to 2,000 additional contact tracing staff will be required to deliver a “sustainable service” across Scotland.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “It is important to stress that ‘test, trace, isolate, support’ will be most effective when levels of infection are low – lower than now – and stay low, and that its success relies on all of us knowing and agreeing what to do if we have symptoms, and being prepared to self-isolate when advised to do so.”

The government report says that test, trace and isolate would be “used alongside other public health measures to reduce transmission, such as physical distancing, good hand and respiratory hygiene, including appropriate use of face coverings, and disease surveillance”.

It will begin with contacts of priority groups already being testing, such as patients and NHS and social care workers, before broadening out.

The government estimates that it may need to deliver up to 15,500 tests per day across the country when ‘test, trace, isolate, support’ is fully rolled out.

Dickson reiterated that people should not become complacent about the virus.

“It is imperative that we remember that there is no cure or vaccine for this virus and we cannot become complacent now that we feel the situation is under control,” he said.

“The virus, and all the challenges it brings, can rapidly accelerate and to avoid this we have to wash hands, keep to social distancing and self-isolate if we are unwell.”

The number of positive Covid-19 results in Shetland, meanwhile, has remained static again at 54.

NHS Shetland consultant in public health Dr Susan Laidlaw the last confirmed case was on 20 April.

“This is with increased testing, which will further increase in light of the recent announcements by the first minister,” she added.

“However, we do not know yet if we will see an increase again once restrictions begin to be lifted, whenever that is.

“It therefore vitally important that once we are able to come into contact with more people, everyone continues to follow all the advice on preventing spread of infection including hand washing, social distancing and isolating if you have symptoms.”