Concerns voiced over potential for confusion in Borders if Scotland comes up with Covid-19 contact-tracing app of its own

Fears are being voiced about Scotland potentially breaking ranks with the UK and coming up with a contact-tracing app of its own as part of its coronavirus lockdown exit strategy, a move likely to cause confusion in regions such as the Borders.

The border between Scotland and England at Carter Bar.
The border between Scotland and England at Carter Bar.

Politicians in the region are urging the Scottish Government, even if it does decide to go it alone, to work in collaboration with its Westminster opposite number to ensure that any independent app would be compatible with that in use south of border crossings such as those at Scots Dyke, Penton, Carter Bar, Coldstream and Norham.

A test version of the UK Government’s coronavirus contact-tracing app is currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight with a view to nationwide rollout at a later date.

Borders MP John Lamont MP and MSP Rachael Hamilton believe that contact-tracing approaches in Scotland and England must be aligned to ensure they operate seamlessly for cross-border travellers.

Almost 1,700 Borderers travel into England for work every day and they could face confusion if two incompatible apps are in operation, according to Mr Lamont and Mrs Hamilton.

The former, MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, said: “I am really glad to see innovative ideas such as the contact-tracing app being considered.

“No stone should be left unturned in the pursuit of a return to some sense of normality.

“However, to work properly it would appear to me that any app would need to be Britain-wide.

“Any Scotland-only app would risk problems for those of us who live in the Borders.

“I know for a fact that many people in Berwickshire use supermarkets in England, and schools across the Borders have a number of pupils who live in England attending.

“It is not uncommon for people living in places such as Newcastleton to work in Carlisle as well.

“This virus does not respect borders.

“We should do all we can to make sure this app is as robust as possible, and that means taking account of our open border.”

Mrs Hamilton, MSP for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, added: “The use of an app to track and trace the infection will be a fantastic new development, meaning we can transition to the first phase of easing lockdown.

“If the Scottish Government develops an app designed only for usage in Scotland, a potential scenario could arise where people will not be able cross the border into England and vice-versa.

“An essential worker commuting to Berwick from Kelso or a person delivering shopping to a shielding relative in Wooler, for example, may not be able to do so.

“A four-nation approach is what is needed to tackle this virus.

“Mixed messages add to the confusion amongst the public and people start to push the boundaries.”

South Scotland Labour list MSP Colin Smyth agrees, saying: “There are serious practical issues for the thousands of people who live in Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders but who travel to Cumbria and Northumberland on a regular basis for work, education, health and leisure.

“While I understand we are in the early stages of development for both tracing apps, it is vital that there is a coherent approach.

“Right now, there are two different apps being discussed and it is unclear how both tools would work together.”

At yesterday’s Scottish Parliament virtual question time, first minister Nicola Sturgeon, replying to a wider query by Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw, defended Scotland’s retention of the right to deviate from a unilateral policy for easing lockdown if that is deemed to be the better option.

She told him: “A four-nations approach, if it is to be meaningful, has to be one that all four nations have been involved in formulating and which takes account of the evidence in each part of the UK, not just the evidence in some parts of it. That is the way in which we have to continue to proceed.

“We can have a four-nations approach that is co-ordinated and that accepts that there will be some differences of pace, depending on the evidence. That would be perfectly legitimate.

“However, we could decide that doing the same thing at the same time is what matters most.

“Either of those approaches is legitimate.

“If we use the latter, we must go at the pace of the part of the UK that is furthest behind in the infection curve because not to do so would lead to parts of the UK potentially lifting restrictions before it was safe to do so. That is the worry that I have, and it is what I am not prepared to countenance here.

“Some people seem to have a lot more angst about a UK-wide approach than I do.

“I have been very clear. If somebody says to me that the approach has to be UK-wide at all costs, I will say that that is the wrong starting point. If somebody else says that Scotland has to have a separate approach at all costs, I will tell them that that is the wrong starting point.

“My starting point is what does the evidence tell us to do to suppress the virus and save lives?

“That is the only thing that I am interested in regarding what I am dealing with right now.”