Covid: Scotland may see 50% more deaths in second Omicron wave, says expert

Scotland may see 50 per cent more Covid-related deaths in the second wave of Omicron compared to the first, an expert has said.

It comes as the number of people reported in hospital with Covid returned to the highest on record on Friday, while the infection rate dipped slightly to the second-highest ever.

Covid infections have hit a record high across the UK, as free lateral flow testing came to an end in England on Friday. The same measure will be taken at the end of April in Scotland, with asymptomatic testing ending on April 18.

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The current wave of Omicron may now have peaked in Scotland, experts said, as the infection rate dropped slightly from one in 11 to one in 12 last week. Scotland’s infection rate was 40 per cent higher than England and Wales in the week to March 25.

Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

James Naismith, professor of structural biology at Oxford University, said Scotland was “living with the virus by being infected with it”.

The number of people reported in hospital with Covid rose again on Friday to 2,383, matching the previous record set on Tuesday.

The number of Covid-related deaths at the peak of the second Omicron wave is set to be 50 per cent higher than during the first wave, according to estimates from Professor Sheila Bird, a senior visiting fellow at the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit at Cambridge University and Honorary Professor of Edinburgh University’s College of Medicine.

Some 280 deaths were recorded with Covid-19 mentioned on the death certificate across the two-week peak of the Omicron subvariant BA.1 between January 10 and 23.

But according to Prof Bird, the same figure over the current BA.2 peak between March 14 and 27 could reach 435 – an increase of 55 per cent.

This figure is based on estimates, due to delays in the registering and recording of deaths by National Records of Scotland.

Prof Bird said this figure assumes the past two weeks were the peak of the second wave of deaths. If not, the figures could become even worse.

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“Assuming, best case, that we only get a two-week peak for Omicron 2 – that may not be the case, it may be a three-week peak – that translates into about 50 per cent higher likely number of fatalities in that pair of weeks than in the Omicron 1 peak in early January,” she said.

The increase in deaths is due in part to higher infections, Prof Bird said, and to the fact the BA.2 variant appears to have infected more older people, who are more likely to suffer worse outcomes from the virus.

Almost half of the 1,406 people admitted to hospital with Covid in the week to March 22 were over 65, according to Public Health Scotland.

The peak of BA.2 infections may have been reached in the week to March 19, when the Office for National Statistics estimated 9 per cent of Scotland’s population was infected.

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This was considerably higher than the peak of BA.1 infection levels, at 5.7 per cent in the first week of January.

Scotland has been hit by the second wave of Omicron around two weeks earlier than England and Wales, Prof Bird said.

It has also been hit harder, with the peak of infection levels (9 per cent) still outstripping England at 7.6 per cent.

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It is not known why this is, but Prof Bird suggested one factor could be lower immunity levels after fewer first wave infections in Scotland than in England and Wales.

It could also be due to genetic variations more common in Scotland than England, she said, or it could be chance.

“It’s a bit of a change around with Omicron 2 that Scotland’s percentage testing positive is higher than for England, because that hasn’t been the case until now,” Prof Bird said.

"I don’t know the reason for that. It’s possible that because Omicron 1 in a sense “got at” relatively few people in Scotland compared to England, there are more to be susceptible to Omircon 2. That’s a possibility.

“We know that Omicron 2 is affecting the older-age population more than Omicron 1 did in terms of testing positive, so that’s partly why we’ve got higher fatalities. Relatively speaking, the older population is more affected.”

Prof James Naismith said the current Omicron wave in Scotland had most likely peaked, at one in 12 people infected.

"No part of the UK has currently implemented effective control measures, the limit on prevalence of the virus is simply the proportion of susceptible people,” he said.

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“This is literally living with the virus by being infected with it.”

Prof Naismith added that BA.2 still kills vulnerable people who are unvaccinated, and by risking such high levels of infection the UK has “decided to run a Long Covid experiment”.

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