A leading public health expert has warned that removing all Covid testing in Scotland would leave the country “driving blind” into the next phase of the pandemic, amid fears that testing could be scaled back as the UK Government removes the legal self isolation requirement in England.

Speaking on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme, Professor Linda Bauld discussed the Prime Minister’s ‘living with Covid’ plan, as he is set to unveil that people in England will no longer have to self-isolate after testing positive for coronavirus and the scaling back of free Covid tests.

Professor Bauld warned that levels of the virus in the community remain high as one in 25 Scots have been identified as having the Covid in the latest figures.

She said: “A number of countries around the world have been easing their protective measures and I imagine that is what we're likely going to hear in England today.

“The levels of infection in the community are still high in England, you've got one in 20, in Scotland, one in 25, and we still need the capacity to be able to identify when there is virus in the community.

“On self isolation, there's a little bit of confusion because it's always different around the UK, for example, in England, there are legal requirements self-isolate, and if you don't do that when contacted by test and trace, you could face quite a hefty fine. 

In Scotland, it is strong guidance, backed up by legal requirements when returning from international travel. We just need to separate out that removing the fines and the legality in England with the fact that people in England, still may be receiving strong advice to isolate, particularly if they have symptoms.”

Speaking about self-isolation in Scotland she added that it was her ‘personal view’ that if people have Covid symptoms, there should still be the ability and the support, to stay away from others to isolate to not pass on that virus to others in the community.

“I think we do need access to ongoing free testing, particularly PCR for some groups, and those would be those that are more vulnerable, those that need treatments,” Professor Bauld added,  “We are going to need to know if staff in care homes and healthcare settings have this virus, so even rapid testing for them may still be needed. So I think certainly a removal of all testing means we'll be sort of driving blind into the next stage of the pandemic and that's something we want to avoid.”

Another issue with removing free testing is the ability to surveille new variants of the virus emerging, Prof Bauld added.

“In order to pick up variants, you need to sequence a sample and we can do that through PCR tests, but if you remove testing, then you can't do that. So the key thing for me is actually surveillance. Even though we seem to be coming out of this Omicron wave we need the ONS infection survey or version of it to see how much infection is there in the community, we may need wastewater testing, which has real promise as an early warning programme and then we need some testing so that we can look at those variants and that will give us the evidence, the basis to be able to plan ahead.

“Looking ahead, including the longer term future, what we need to do is give clear advice and guidance to people that if they have symptoms, not just of Covid-19, but indeed other respiratory viruses or other viruses that could pass on to others. 

“There needs to be support to be able to get well, stay at home, stay away from others if you're going to pass it on. And that means there are big questions around how we support people to do that with employers or our discussions with others.”