Cases of new coronavirus variant ‘barely’ reducing in Scotland

Scotland has ‘never been close’ to eliminating coronavirus, one of the Scottsh Government’s scientific advisers has warned.

Cases of the new variant are not falling significantly, Prof Woolhouse warned.
Cases of the new variant are not falling significantly, Prof Woolhouse warned.

Speaking at Holyrood’s Covid-19 committee, Professor Mark Woolhouse, chair of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, University of Edinburgh, said that Scotland was not close to eliminating the virus at any point in the epidemic due to a high level of cases going undetected in the community, even during the summer months when only a handful of cases a day were officially being reported.

Professor Woolhouse also warned that cases of the new dominant UK variant of coronavirus have hardly declined at all during lockdown, that the drop in cases north of the border was mainly attributable to a fall in cases of the old variant, while the number of cases of the new, so-called “Kent” variant, had “held steady”.

Prof Woolhouse said: “Scotland was not close to elimination at any stage during this epidemic. We had low numbers of reported cases during the summer. But at the same time, the modelling groups were estimating the number of cases present.”

He said modelling suggested that the actual number of cases was far higher.

He said: “The estimates were that we never fell below 500 cases. More difficult still, the majority of those cases, perhaps 90 per cent of them, were not reported. And the reason for that, is the virus at that stage was circulated particularly in young adult groups that don't show them any symptoms. As soon as the testing capacity increased in August, there was a dramatic increase in the number of cases we were detecting in those same groups.”

He said that driving down levels to elimination level of the new variant, which now accounts for 85 per cent of cases in Scotland, through lockdown, would be very difficult.

He said: “I'm not clear how we could achieve that, we're not. We're barely driving it down at all.”

He added: “The epidemiological situation in Scotland right now is quite delicate and complex, the reduction in cases that we've all seen over the last few weeks is mostly a reduction in the old variants. The new variant has more or less held steady, it has declined slightly, but it's more or less held steady. This was something I was very concerned about when I was first alerted to the new variant back in December, that it was actually going to be extremely difficult to suppress this variant due to lockdown. And we said at the time that it was right on a knife edge, whether we can do it or not. That, that's exactly what we're seeing now in the data.”

He also insisted that Scotland could not achieve a full elimination like New Zealand due to the early seeding of the virus in the country.

Appearing at the committee alongside Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health at the University of Otago in Wellington, Prof Woolhouse said that New Zealand had been in a “fortunate” position of having only a few cases in the country when it went into strict lockdown in March – two days after Scotland and the rest of the UK.

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“The UK epidemic was seeded in late February by large numbers of cases, 1,000s of cases, being brought in from France, Italy and Spain. So, even if we put border closure measures in place when New Zealand did it would have had very little effect and would have been much too late. Their epidemic was seeded behind the UK.”

He said his team’s analysis showed that less than half the cases in Scotland are still not being identified.

Prof Baker said: “We [in New Zealand] had a slight timing advantage but it wasn't profound. And, I think, unfortunately, the World Health Organisation was telling us too much. They were saying, keep your borders open, take lockdowns as a last resort, and save masks for those who need them. In the end we just did the opposite of what the WHO was recommending. I think most western countries got it so wrong at that point.”

Professor Sian Griffiths, emeritus professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, said early action in places like Hong Kong had been due to lessons learned from previous epidemics.

She said: “As soon as they saw there was a sort of SARS like epidemic [in Hong Kong] restrictions came in because they learned from the previous SARS epidemic in 2003. So I think when we're looking forward, we will have learned many things.”

She said that mask wearing could become a cultural norm in Scotland in future.

She said: “[In Hong Kong], if you have a sniffle, you wear a mask to go to work, it's just a different way of thinking. The culture in the UK, for some reason we have not really been promoting it in the same way as other countries, in the future it is maybe something that the population decides on.”

Prof Woolhouse said there were grounds for optimism in the future, due to the roll out of the vaccine.

He said: “The Scottish Government as we all know, has a policy of cautious relaxation, driven by data, and my interpretation of this position is the data is looking very good. So, I am hoping personally that it will be possible to relax, some what ahead of the schedule that we might have had in mind.”

Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Donald Cameron said: “We need the First Minister to be open and honest about what the virus prevalence has been at all times during the pandemic. Rather than trying to rewrite history about last summer, the SNP Government should listen to the evidence presented by one of their own respected scientific advisers.

"Otherwise we run the risk of compliance levels falling and the virus transmitting more widely in our communities due to a false narrative.”

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