July 8, 2020 Blog

Scotland was left ‘unprepared’ for Covid-19

It is the duty of every government to ensure the society and public services it governs are ready for the unexpected. But since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been evident that Scotland was left unprepared.

Now new research from Scottish Labour shows that several health boards in Scotland had between zero and five contact tracers at a crucial stage in the COVID-19 pandemic. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Scotland’s largest territorial health board, had only five contact tracers in place.

Back in May, we learned that lessons were not learned from the Scottish Government’s “Silver Swan” pandemic planning exercise in 2015 – which itself had glaring emissions, such as not mentioning testing once in its 27-page report.

In 2018, the Scottish Government carried out another pandemic planning exercise – this time entitled “Exercise Iris”, and assessing a potential response to Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (Mers), another kind of coronavirus. One scenario detailed in the Exercise Iris report involved “escalating resource requirements for contact tracing and follow up”. As a result, health boards were asked to explore what this would involve.

Yet by March 12 this year, the date when Scotland moved from the containment phase to the delay phase, there were only 106 contact tracers in place across the whole of Scotland, according to data provided to me in a parliamentary answer.

Three health boards – Ayrshire and Arran, Dumfries and Galloway and Tayside – had no contact tracers in place.

According to the World Health Organisation contact tracing should be the backbone of a country’s virus response. People in Scotland deserve to know why hardly any contact tracers were in place at such a crucial stage of the pandemic.

Contact tracing is a fundamental part of outbreak control that is used by public health professionals around the world to prevent the spread of infections. So why did the Scottish Government fail to expand Scotland’s contact tracing capabilities following the Exercise Iris pandemic planning exercise in 2018?

To have health boards without a single contact tracer available and to have only five contact tracers in Scotland’s largest health board is unacceptable.

Tragically, COVID-19 has taken thousands of lives in Scotland and put jobs and livelihoods at risk. It’s time for the Health Secretary to explain just why so many opportunities to prepare for a virus outbreak were missed.

Here is Monica Lennon’s parliamentary question, and Health Secretary Jeane Freeman’s answer, in full:

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Scottish Labour): To ask the Scottish Government how many contact tracers there were in each NHS board at the point of transition from the containment to the delay phase for COVID-19, and how many there are currently.


Jeane Freeman: Public Health Scotland (PHS), working with NHS Boards, are leading activity to put in place a contact tracing system that will rapidly enhance existing capacity, and evolve into a sustainable service that can be in place for as long as is required. The priorities for delivering this includes the establishment of a national service alongside the contact tracing services in every Board. The following table details the number of contact tracing staff in place for each NHS Health Board at the following points:

  1. 12 March: Transition point between the containment and delay phase
  2. 28 May: The point at which a commitment was made to have 2,000 contact tracers ready to deploy across Scotland.



NHS Board

Staff in place

12 March

Staff Deployable 28 May
Ayrshire & Arran 0 111
Borders 4 44
Dumfries & Galloway 0 40
Fife 11 105
Forth Valley 8 40
Grampian 15 200
Greater Glasgow & Clyde 5 570
Highlands 10 30
Lanarkshire 18 238
Lothian 9 233
Orkney 24
Shetland 13 13
Tayside 0 73
NES 50
Western Isles 3 16
Public Health Scotland & NSS 10 170
SAS 0 50
Total number of staff 106 2007



On 10 March 2020 Dr Gregor Smith in his capacity as Deputy Chief Medical Officer described contact tracing as a highly effective way to protect the public from infections like Coronavirus (COVID-19). Contact Tracing was used during the containment phase, described on the Scottish Government website as “the early phase where we attempt to contain the spread by rapidly tracking down patients and giving the appropriate treatment.” https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-how-contact-tracing-works/