Covid Scotland: Why does Scotland have higher Covid rates than England despite more restrictions?

Scotland still has tighter Covid restrictions than England, so why are infection levels higher north of the border?

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) infection survey, considered by many to be the gold standard measure, estimates around one in 14 people in Scotland had Covid in the week to March 12.

Infection levels were slightly lower in England, at one in 20.

This is despite all legal restrictions having been repealed in England, while in Scotland businesses have had to follow Covid guidelines until this week, and face masks remain a legal requirement.

Health workers prepare to assist at a NHS Test and Trace Covid-19 testing unit at the Civic Centre in Uxbridge, Hillingdon, West London in 2021. Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

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There are several reasons why Scotland might have a higher infection rate, according to Dr Christine Tait-Burkard, an expert in coronaviruses at Edinburgh University’s Roslin Institute.

One is the restrictions still in place in Scotland don’t limit virus spread as much as in the past, because the now-dominant BA.2 variant is much more transmissible than previous strains.

This means that cloth face coverings aren’t as effective as previously, and the time when face coverings don’t have to be worn – such as when sitting down to eat or drink – can often be enough to allow transmission.

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Face coverings still provide some protection and Dr Tait-Burkard believes it is right to keep wearing them. They also have a psychological impact, she said, as the visual cue of people wearing masks reminds others to take other measures, such as social distancing.

But she advised vulnerable people to wear FFP2 masks, which offer more protection.

Another reason for higher case numbers in Scotland is the wave of BA.2 started earlier here. In Scotland this is now believed to account for more than 80 per cent of cases, while in England it is around half.

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This makes a big difference, as BA.2 transmits between 30 and 50 per cent more easily than BA.2. It is very likely England will see a similar peak of infection in around two weeks, Dr Tait-Burkard said.

Scotland also had more “dry timber” in terms of Covid than England, she added. Because of tighter restrictions throughout the pandemic, fewer people in Scotland had had the virus and so were more likely to get it when BA.2 began circulating very widely.

This is a good thing, Dr Tait-Burkard said, as Omicron is less severe than previous strains.

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