SCOTLAND is on track to process 3,500 coronavirus tests a day, but not until the end of April and after the outbreak peak is expected to have passed.

Nicola Sturgeon said the push to “expand and accelerate” testing capacity would be vital to help ease Scotland out of lockdown.

However, she said she is also hopeful of a slowdown in new cases by the end of the month, before maximum testing capacity is achieved.

The First Minister addressed MSPs amid an ongoing row that the UK is failing to test enough NHS staff for Covid-19.

READ MORE: Early lockdown means coronavirus death rate in Scotland should be lower than rest of UK

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has now told hospital labs in NHS England to use all spare capacity to test their frontline workers.

UK ministers were also left red-faced after blaming a global lack of reagents needed to carry out tests, only for the chemical industry to deny there are any shortages.

“We are working at pace to significantly increase our testing capacity,” said Ms Sturgeon, adding that capacity had more than doubled in a few weeks from 750 to 1,900 and “will increase over the next month to 3,500”.

She added: “As capacity expands we will progressively increase the number of health and care workers tested, and we have already published guidance to support this.”

The guidance, issued on March 24, tells health boards to prioritise testing to people with symptoms who share a household with an NHS or social care worker in order to minimise the number of working days lost.

For example, a nurse with a cough or fever would be asked to self-isolate for seven days, but if it was their child or flatmate who was sick the advice is to self-isolate even longer – 14 days – as a precaution.

A negative test result for the child or flatmate would get the nurse back to work much earlier.

Ms Sturgeon said on Tuesday that six per cent of NHS staff in Scotland were currently off sick or self-isolating due to possible coronavirus, but figures are not yet available for how many NHS staff or co-habitants have been tested.

Health boards have also been advised to prioritise testing to departments where staff are in highest demand, either due to patient admissions, higher staff shortages or sickness absence.

It notes that this could mean targeting testing to midwives in one health board area, or to intensive care consultants in another.

The bulk of testing is still being directed to obviously unwell patients in hospital or, at a community level, through appointment-only Covid-19 assessment hubs.

This contrasts with World Health Organisation (WHO) demands to “test every suspected case” and scientists, including public health expert Professor Jimmy Whitworth, who warned that it leaves the UK “on the backfoot”.

However, Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government was looking to expand testing, including the use of antibody tests for immunity, once strict social distancing restrictions were eased.

She said: “We will also be considering the role of more extensive testing as part of our strategy – at the right time of course – to bring the country out of the current lockdown measures.

“If we are as successful as we want to be in suppressing the virus at this stage then we can use testing to go back to something that is more a containment strategy as opposed to the delay strategy we’re in now.

“That is why it’s important that we expand and accelerate the testing strategy as quickly as possible.”

READ MORE: Sweden has had 180 deaths - so why is there no lockdown?

A total of 2,310 people in Scotland have now tested positive for Covid-19, with a further 16 patients dying in the space of 24 hours taking the total to 76.

Ms Sturgeon said: “We hope we will see a slowdown in next few weeks.

“However, as the measures take some time to take effect it is too early to come to any firm conclusions yet”

The UK’s public health authorities, including those in Scotland, have repeatedly insisted that most adults do not need to be tested, but should self-isolate if they show symptoms.

“I disagree with that,” said Mr Whitworth, an expert in international public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“It’s now clear that people are infected and infecting others before they get symptoms.

“So if all you test are people with symptoms, you’re always going to be on the backfoot because there’s always going to be new cases occurring from people who don’t have symptoms.”

The WHO said in March that countries should test all suspected cases.

But Professor Mark Woolhouse, an expert in infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University, said this would fail if many cases were so mild as to be undetected in a “tip of the iceberg” scenario.

“I think what the WHO would really like to see is an intensive programme where you’re testing everybody all the time and the moment they light up positive you isolate them,” said Mr Woolhouse.

“That’s not realistic in practice on a national scale. So it’s some balance between hunting down the virus through actual testing and the more population-wide effects of social distancing.

“WHO leans one way, the UK leans the other. We will find out soon enough which one is right, but it’s almost certainly somewhere in the middle.”

Ms Sturgeon said the impact of coronavirus on the NHS “is being felt already” through an increase in infected intensive care patients, which has gone from 51 to 147 in space of a week – with 12 more admissions in the last 24 hours.

“Unfortunately we do expect that increase to continue for a further two to three weeks,” she said.

“But I can advise Parliament that we have now achieved our initial target of doubling intensive care capacity to 360 beds.

“While some of this capacity will still be required for other urgent care, that provides us with approximately 250 ICU beds which can be used exclusively for Covid-19 patients.”

The Scottish Government is working towards increasing ICU capacity to more than 700 beds, with hundreds of extra ventilators on order.

However, operating theatre anaesthetic machines are being adapted into temporary ventilators to “bridge the gap”.

“This is not a long-term solution but it will allow us over the next week or so to rapidly increase capacity to more than 500 beds,” said Ms Sturgeon.

The Scottish Government has ring-fenced 3,000 hospital beds from a total of 13,000 for Covid-19 patients.

As of Tuesday night, more than one-third – 1,153 – were already occupied, including the ICU patients.

A temporary field hospital, named after Glasgow nurse Louisa Jordan, is being created at the city’s Scottish Exhibition Centre (SEC), but Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government’s “current expectation is that this hospital will not need to be used”.

Ms Sturgeon said modelling suggests that Scotland’s intensive care units “are now in a much stronger position to cope with the expected peak of the epidemic” as long as people across the country “continue to do the right thing” by staying at home.

It comes as a preliminary study by scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that the UK’s lockdown may already be slowing the virus’ spread.

An analysis involving 1,300 people in Britain found that their average number of daily contacts was 70% lower than before the lockdown.

“If we see similar changes across the UK population, we would expect to see the epidemic to start to decline,” said John Edmunds, who led the study.

He stressed the findings should not be seen as “job done”, however.

“It’s imperative we don’t take our foot off the pedal,” he said.

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