Travel agency staff have been hired as contact tracers by the health service, Scotland’s first minister has confirmed.

Nicola Sturgeon said that NHS Scotland had taken on staff from Barrhead Travel after demand for travel dropped.

The agency chain approached the Scottish government to offer help with national efforts to control the virus while also keeping staff employed.

Barrhead Travel said it could not confirm how many staff had been hired for confidentiality reasons, the BBC reported.

The first minister mentioned that staff had been taken on from the travel agent during the Scottish government’s coronavirus briefing.

She was responding to a question about private companies being involved in contact tracing.

Sturgeon stressed that Scotland had not and would not outsource its contact tracing system to the private sector.

She said when staff were being recruited into the NHS system, the health board “will go to different sources to get the people that we need to do the jobs”.

The first minister said one “good” thing that had been done was to take on the travel agent’s staff.

“The NHS was contacted at an earlier stage of the pandemic by Barrhead Travel to see if we could make use of any of their staff in contact tracing who might otherwise be facing redundancy.

“So we have recruited a number of them to be part of the NHS system to help with contact tracing.”

Barrhead Travel president Jacqueline Dobson said: “As travel is unlikely to return to pre-Covid levels before 2021, we proactively explored other business options earlier this year to help preserve as many jobs as possible.

“Our people are our most important asset at Barrhead Travel. By working in partnership with NHS Scotland to provide highly skilled personnel for national contact tracing efforts, we will be able to save many jobs and keep our people in work until the demand for travel returns.

“Our colleagues seconded onto the project remain Barrhead Travel employees. This team will work remotely from home and we have deployed our own technology which has integrated seamlessly with NCTC systems.

“Travel is, of course, still our primary business and our stores are open as normal across the country to support all of our customers with their holiday plans for 2021 and beyond.

“Due to the nature of this work, there are confidentiality agreements in place between Barrhead Travel and NHS Scotland and we are unable to disclose any further information about this project.”

An NHS Scotland spokesman confirmed that additional staff had been hired to support the national contact tracing centre.

He said: “This interim staffing solution provides experienced and highly-skilled contact centre staff who can hit the ground running, including those from Barrhead Travel.”