Nicola Sturgeon is facing demands to urgently uncover the number of Scots flouting orders to self-isolate, after it emerged that official estimates provided by her top advisers are based on “ropey” data.
A long-awaited evidence paper published this month cited evidence that just 23.1 per cent of those who developed symptoms in Scotland had stayed at home completely, despite the First Minister’s repeated warnings of the danger breaking self-isolation poses to others.
However, it has emerged that the figure is based on a sample of just 121 people, with surveys carried out as long ago as early March, raising doubts about its reliability.
Ms Sturgeon’s opponents said the lack of solid evidence raised concerns about the Scottish Government’s strategy for suppressing the virus, which relies on people with symptoms or a positive test voluntarily following orders to remain at home for 14 days.
Even the lead author of the paper cited by the Scottish Government said there was a need for more comprehensive research into the proportion of people who are breaking orders to stay at home, and admitted limitations to his findings.
The questions have emerged amid fears that the SNP’s soft touch approach to policing isolation could have contributed to a recent surge in cases, which has led to the blanket closure of hospitality businesses in the Central Belt.
While in England those who “recklessly” leave self-isolation face a £4,000 fine, in Scotland, there is no legal obligation to quarantine, even for those that receive a positive test result.
It emerged at the weekend that NHS data on those told to self-isolate in England could be shared with police to help ensure compliance.
However, Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster spokesman, yesterday downplayed the chances of the tactic being replicated in Scotland, saying it “was far better to use the carrot than the stick”.
Scots are told to self-isolate should they develop symptoms, receive a positive test result, or are told to by health officials or a contact-tracing app.
Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said it was vital that the government had a more reliable picture of how many people were following rules.
“This ropey, small and out of date sample should make alarm bells ring in St Andrews House,” he said.
“The Government has no reason to be confident the system is working and people are complying. The Government must get a grip and conduct proper research into what is going on.”
The research cited by the Scottish Government was carried out by academics at King's College London, but has yet to be peer reviewed, a process the study’s lead author described as “a fundamental part of the scientific process”.
Surveys carried out between March and August found that across the UK, most people said they would quarantine if they developed symptoms.
However, of those who reported symptoms over the previous week, just 18.2 per cent said they had actually self-isolated.
Compliance was even lower among those alerted by contact tracers that they had been in close contact with a confirmed case.
While the research was based on around 30,000 surveys overall, the part cited by the Scottish Government, which claimed 23.1 per cent of Scots who developed symptoms in the past week had not left home since, was based on a sub-sample of just 28 people who said they had isolated and 93 who did not.
The UK-wide finding, that 18.1 per cent of people had self-isolated, was based on a sample of 1,939 people, which would be seen as a statistically reliable sample size.
James Rubin, the lead author of the paper and a member of the Health Protection Research Unit at King’s College London, backed calls for more comprehensive research into the number of people who were self-isolating.
“The sample size in the preprint for Scotland is 121 people with symptoms,” he confirmed. “The outcome measure is a metric of self-reported full isolation – for example, we don’t know if people who were not isolating were going to work all the time or if they just left the house once at 3am to take the dog round the block.
“I think we need more and better metrics on how well people are adhering to self-isolation and how we can better support them to adhere.”
The Scottish Government has announced £500 support packages for people on low incomes who are required to self-isolate but cannot work from home. A similar scheme is operating in England, although unlike Scotland, there are also heavy fines for those who break rules.
In separate polling research commissioned by the Scottish government, fewer than four in ten people claim to comply with all regulations and guidelines, including wearing of face masks and limits on the number of people who can meet. However, 79 per cent say they comply or almost comply with the rules, with 19 per cent report lower compliance.
Men, people aged under 45 and those in households with children were more likely to bend rules. As the surveys are targeted at the general population, there is not data on compliance with quarantine and self-isolation.
In its evidence paper, the Scottish Government said: "Over the coming period, we will work with the public and sectoral partners to review our approach to compliance and mitigations and ensure that barriers to compliance are addressed."