Covid: Restrictions in Scotland have been beneficial and England should have followed, says virologist

Restrictions which came into force in Scotland before new year have been beneficial and should have also been applied in England, a virologist has said.

The position was voiced as Nicola Sturgeon faces calls to scrap limits on large gatherings and hospitality, which some business leaders have claimed are ineffective.

These limits were initially applied for a three week period from Boxing Day, which is set to end on January 17.

Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick University, said restrictions in Scotland since Boxing Day have been beneficial, and the UK Government should have followed Scotland’s example.

A customer sits with his beer in Jackson's Bar in the city centre of Glasgow. Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images

He called for continued “caution”, adding that it is “misleading” to label Omicron a “mild” variant as the impact on hospitalisations of older people and children, as well as the variant’s long-term effects, are not yet known.

It comes as the number of people in hospital with recently-confirmed Covid rose to 1,432, while 54 people are in intensive care.

Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce (AGCC) demanded that Ms Sturgeon end “damaging” restrictions which threaten the survival of businesses.

More than three-quarters of 170 businesses in the north east who were surveyed by the AGCC between Friday and Monday said the Scottish Government was not balancing health and economic harms correctly with its Covid-19 policy.

“The First Minister must announce the end of these damaging restrictions this week,” said policy director Ryan Crighton.

“Not doing so places the very survival of many businesses at risk and jobs on the line.”

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“The latest data suggests that the Scottish Government’s gamble with our hospitality sector and high streets has failed, despite weeks of warnings,” he added.

“We have been calling for ministers to recalibrate their response since before Christmas following the publication of various studies on the severity of Omicron."

Mr Crighton said: “Two things are now beyond question: one, that the restrictions currently in place are doing enormous damage to a number of business sectors; and two, that they have failed to make any meaningful difference to case numbers in Scotland.”

The Scottish Licensed Trade Association also called for the curbs to be abandoned.

“I think we'd all like to see the restrictions ended as soon as possible,” said spokesperson Paul Waterson.

"We understand that the government is in a difficult position, yet the position we’re in at the moment is the worst we could be in.

"We're not officially closed, but the government has effectively closed us because they've told people to be very careful and not come out, but we’re not really getting any help of any substance.

“All anybody has to do is go through our city centres to see the amount of places that are actually closed at the moment that haven't reopened after Christmas and New Year”.

Mr Waterson added he has “sympathy” with the Scottish Government as the lack of funding for a fresh furlough scheme has come from Westminster.

Leon Thompson, director of UKHospitality Scotland, said businesses are “desperate” to see the end of restrictions.

"We now need to see the removal of restrictions to allow businesses to increase capacity and for nightclubs to reopen to help revitalise the night-time economy,” he said.

“Restrictions on events are also damaging hospitality. The cancellation of business events and uncertainty about Scotland’s Six Nations games at Murrayfield is resulting in the further erosion of consumer confidence.

“Major events like the Six Nations are vital for hospitality. Edinburgh’s hotels, pubs, bars and restaurants will miss out on another opportunity to generate much needed revenue if Scotland’s home games are not played in front of capacity crowds at Murrayfield.”

Scottish Labour called on the government to ensure restrictions are backed up by evidence and financial support.

"This is a chance to take a serious look at where we stand in suppressing this virus, and what the latest data is telling us,” she said.

“People and businesses need urgent answers – but too often the SNP have seemed more concerned with spin than facts.”

A report published by the Scottish Government ahead of Ms Sturgeon’s announcement put the case rate in Scotland at 2,824 per day per million people, in the week to last Thursday.

In the same period the rate was 2,615 in England.

However, the most recent infection survey by the Office for National Statistics, considered by some to be a more accurate estimate of virus levels, estimated that about one in 20 people in Scotland had Covid in the week to December 31, compared to one in 15 in England.

Prof Young warned it is “almost impossible” to compare data between nations, as a range of variables need to be adjusted for.

"The question is how can you judge the degree to which the current restrictions have impacted… what would have happened if you didn't have those restrictions in place?” he said.

He added: “I'm sure [the restrictions have] helped in delaying infections and allowing more people to get vaccinated.”

Prof Young urged caution, warning that hospitalisations may soon increase in older people, who are likely to experience worse outcomes.

“I think we [in England] could have been a bit more cautious and actually brought in some of the similar restrictions to Scotland in the run up to Christmas and over New Year,” he said.

“That would have helped enormously in just giving that breathing space… the sad thing is the consequences are we're getting more youngsters getting sick, a lot more young folk are in hospital now as well, and we still don't know enough about the impact of Omicron on Long Covid.”

It is “misleading” to dismiss Omicron as mild, Prof Young said.

“I think there are still lots of unknowns, and we all need to be a little bit more cautious," he said.

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