Covid-19: Rapid test site data was not shared with Scottish ministers | World news

Health ministers in Scotland were barred from seeing thousands of coronavirus results from rapid testing sites for weeks because of data restrictions imposed by the UK government.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) began setting up rapid testing centres across England and Scotland to test hospital staff and key workers for Covid-19 in early April, but Scottish ministers were given the data for the first time late last month.

The DHSC, which hired the accountancy firm Deloitte to run the programme, decided at first to only give the results to individual patients, to the irritation of ministers in Scotland.

Initially only patients in hospital could get tests in the UK. Then testing was expanded to NHS staff and care home staff. Now up to 10 million essential workers and their families who are showing symptoms of coronavirus can apply for a test via a government website

The list of essential workers is the same as the one used to allow the children of key workers to carry on going to school during the lockdown. In addition to health and social care staff, the list includes teachers, judges, some lawyers, religious staff, and journalists providing public service broadcasting.

Also included are local civil servants, police, armed service personnel, fire and rescue service staff, immigration officers and prison and probation staff. Some private-sector staff also qualify including vets, those in food production, essential financial services and information technology, as well as those working in the oil, gas, electricity and water sectors.

Matthew Weaver

As a result, none of the positive test results detected in Scotland were included in their daily updates on Covid-19 cases in April, and could not be factored into those governments’ planning for the pandemic.

The DHSC’s very narrowly drawn data disclosure policies meant those results could not be shared with the Scottish government, or the hospitals those staff worked for, even if it was anonymised. English hospitals reported that some test results were late, lost or given to the wrong workers.

UK government ministers and health officials had described the rapid testing centres as a key part of the “five pillars” strategy to confront the pandemic, and said their output was essential in meeting Matt Hancock’s pledge on 2 April to carry out 100,000 tests per day by the end of April.

When the Edinburgh test centre opened on 16 April, Lord Bethell, a UK government health minister, said it was a “national effort to boost testing capacity for coronavirus to protect the vulnerable, support our NHS, and ultimately save lives”.

The DHSC said overall results from those tests were included in UK totals released by the UK government each day. However, it refused to disclose publicly how many tests it carried out at rapid testing centres in different parts of the UK.

In Scotland, the UK government had opened rapid testing centres at Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness airports before they changed the data protection rules.

The Glasgow site started testing nearly three weeks before the rules were amended. The devolved Holyrood government was told each day how many tests had been carried out at the rapid testing centres, but not what those tests uncovered.

The Scottish government said knowing how many key workers were positive was “essential in order to report meaningfully on the testing conducted at these facilities”. Officials in Edinburgh said they were told the DHSC had decided only the patient would know whether their results were negative or positive.

In contrast, the Scottish government had been giving the UK government a full daily breakdown of all its testing programme data from March onwards, including the number of tests, the number of people tested, the results of those tests and its total testing capacity.

The Welsh government said it had decided to opt out of the UK government’s rapid testing centre programmebecause it realised there would be a problem with data-sharing and patient confidentiality.

Instead of allowing the DHSC to set up testing centres, Public Health Wales began work to introduce its own drive-through sites to ensure test results were available to the Welsh NHS and ministers. The first site was set up at Cardiff City’s football stadium on 7 April.

A Welsh government spokesman said: “We identified issues around the storage of data from testing centres at the outset and worked with UK government and Deloitte to ensure data was retained by NHS Wales.”

The UK and Scottish governments told the Guardian they finally resolved the data protection issue in late April.

Holyrood said that even though rapid testing centre results are now being shared by the DHSC, the figures released by the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, every lunchtime still do not include the UK government data because they need to check it is accurate and robust.

While the figures are now being used within the Scottish NHS, the data may not yet be publicly available until early May – a month after the first Scottish centre opened.

A DHSC spokesman confirmed there had been a delay. He said: “We have made clear from the outset we would be happy to provide this data to NHS National Services Scotland and have now done so after being provided with the necessary legal and technical assurances from Scotland.

“A new digital system has now been built which will allow the fast flowing of this data to the relevant public health authorities, including in Scotland, going forwards.”

This article was amended on 5 May 2020. Due to a misunderstanding that arose from communication with official Welsh government sources, an earlier version stated in the text and headline that Wales, like Scotland, had experienced problems in obtaining Covid-19 testing data from DHSC. In fact, as the text now makes clear, the Welsh government set up its own testing centres to head off such data access issues.

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