JOHN Swinney has downplayed the Scottish Government's key target on the contact tracers needed to end the coronavirus lockdown.

The Deputy First Minister said the current 600 tracers would be “sufficient to get the system up and running” next week, despite an official target of 2000 by June 1.

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland, he said “every effort” would be made to increase the numbers, but offered no guarantee another 1400 would be ready next week.

The retreat comes just a day after Nicola Sturgeon told Holyrood the target would not be missed, telling MSPs the plans were “not lagging behind” but “moving at pace”.

She said: “We will have a capacity of 2000 in place by the end of this month. We have the testing capacity that we need for that.” 

The Scottish Tories said Ms Sturgeon now had to be "straight with the public" about hitting the target and not try to row back without people's noticing. 

Contact tracing is at the heart of the Scottish Government's four-stage route map out of the lockdown, as it will identify the sick and those they might have infected.

It is intended to reduce the risk of the disease spreading once restrictions start to be lifted in stages from May 28.

In her foreword to the plan, published yesterday, the First Minister said contact tracing was “an important part of our integrated strategy and is crucial for infection control, shielding and protecting shielders. It is critical for specific issues, for example, the return to schools.” 

Earlier this week, the Scottish Government announced contact new tracing technology was being trialled in Fife, Lanarkshire and Highland health boards. 

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said an initial group of 600 tracers made up of NHS staff were “ready to begin this work, as part of the process of recruiting up to 2000 staff”.

She later said the 2000 staff would be “ready to be deployed” on June 1. 

However on Good Morning Scotland, Mr Swinney was noticeably less confident when asked if there had been any new recruits above the existing 600.

He said: “Six hundred is the last number that I have available to me, and that’s sufficient contact tracers to get the system up and running for what we require at the end of this month.”

Pressed on the June target, he said: “I’m sure every effort will be made to increase the numbers, but 600 is a good contingent of numbers to have in place to begin the work on contact tracing.

“Contact tracing is only valuable where you have suppressed the level of coronavirus in the community to be able to manage all of those contacts and to pursue them.

“So we will have the resources in place to do that so that we can take forward the test and protect strategy that the First Minister outlined yesterday.

“And that will be an integral part in supporting the decisions that we can take under the route map to further relax the constraints that people are operating under.”

His comments contrasted with Ms Sturgeon’s statement to MSPs after she published her map and opposition parties queried the government's ability to test and trace at scale.

She denied the government was behind schedule and insisted a “substantial, significant test and protection operation” would be ready in all 14 regional health boards next week.

She told MSPs: “I want to align our lifting of lockdown with our ability to implement a substantial, significant test and protect operation. We will be able to do that from the end of next week in every health board area in the country. 

“The plans for that are not lagging behind. They are moving at pace. 

“The health secretary confirmed at the weekend that health boards have already identified 600 individuals who are ready to do that. We will have a capacity of 2000 in place by the end of this month. We have the testing capacity that we need for that.” 

Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw said: “Given how critical contact tracing is to exiting lockdown, it’s vital the First Minister is straight with the public.

“It sounds like John Swinney doesn’t think the 2000 target is going to be met, and if that’s the case people and businesses need to know.

“The SNP can’t row back on this commitment and hope nobody will notice.

“Nicola Sturgeon needs to say how many contact tracers, over and above the 600 Mr Swinney is talking about, have been recruited, and will she have 2000 in place by June 1 like she said.

“If that commitment is going to be broken, when will there be 2000 contact tracers ready and available to work?

“We all want contact tracing to work because it’s the only way out lockdown, and we all want to be confident in the system.

“But that will only happen if the SNP is transparent and accountable about what progress is being made.”

Mr Swinney also said the route map was “predicated” on new working patterns, including more home working and an end to the traditional rush hour on public transport.

The Education Secretary said: “We are not going to return to a pre-Covid normal of how schools or businesses operated.

Certainly for schools it’s not going to be the same as Pre-Covid when the schools go back, hopefully on the 11th of August.

“And for many businesses they’ve had to adapt to a lot of people working from home and our route map is predicated on lots more people continuing to work from home to contribute towards the work of their employers.

“What this will require is employers to be flexible about the way in which they’re asking their employees to engage in work.

“We’ve stressed in the route map that we can’t have a return to crowded trains and crowded buses of people going at the one time to work in the rush hour.

“We’re going to have to spread that over a longer period of time so that public transport is less congested at key moments of the day.

“There will have to be an adaptation as a society, not just in our schools but right across society.”

He agreed it was complicated and that ministers were realising it was easier to go into lockdown than come out of it.