Scotland is in the grip of the most severe Covid-19 surge in Europe but further lockdowns can be avoided because it is now "crystal clear" that vaccinations are preventing serious illness and death, a prominent public health expert has said.
Professor Linda Bauld, of the University of Edinburgh, said she believed that despite the country becoming the continent’s virus hotspot, SNP ministers would be able to resist reimposing lockdown restrictions because of the success of the jab rollout.
Statistics show that over the past week case numbers have surged by around 30 per cent, to 114.5 cases per 100,000 people in Scotland. This is well ahead of Spain, England and Latvia, which have the next highest rates in Europe, but have all reported a seven-day average of less than 75 cases per 100,000.
There has been a particularly steep increase in cases in Dundee, South Ayrshire and Edinburgh recently. Nine of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas on Wednesday had an average of more than 150 cases per 100,000 – the nominal Scottish Government threshold for entering the toughest Level 4 restrictions, effectively a full lockdown.
Meanwhile, across Scotland, 1,129 new cases were recorded, the highest daily figure since early February, when the country was in full lockdown and hospitality businesses and non-essential shops were closed.
However, Prof Bauld said that despite the figures appearing "alarming" she believed ministers would be "heavily reluctant" to impose stricter local measures to drive down cases because hospitalisations and deaths were not rising at similar rates.
Ministers should be ‘heavily reluctant’ about new restrictions
Just 15 people were in intensive care in Scotland on Wednesday, while 133 were in hospital with a recently confirmed case.
Most new hospital admissions are among people aged between 30 and 49, with the vast majority of vulnerable elderly groups already fully vaccinated.
"There definitely are hotspots and the national figures look pretty alarming," Prof Bauld said. "But I don’t think we should be screaming and running away in panic.
"The cases are incredibly heavily concentrated in young people, teenagers, people in their 20s and 30s, who’ve either had no vaccine or just one dose.
"I think they would be heavily reluctant to [reimpose restrictions] and so would I, because that means basically shutting stuff again.
"The key thing now is those hospital figures, and again they are just not rising in comparison to the infection rates."
Ivan McKee, the SNP business minister, said on Wednesday that there was still an "open question" about the strength of the link between virus cases, hospital admissions and deaths with new variants of the virus complicating the picture.
However, a Public Health England report this week found that two doses were "highly effective" against the delta variant, first identified in India, which has now become dominant in Scotland.
"Vaccines are reducing the risk of hospitalisation, they’re reducing the risk of people going into ICU, and they’re preventing deaths," Prof Bauld added. "That’s crystal clear to me, but the question is, at what level.
“The situation has transformed from last year. But we’re going to keep having deaths, keep having infections, and the public discussion is shifting to what is a tolerable level of infections and mortality.”
A weekly report by Public Health Scotland on Wednesday reported that the proportion of people who were admitted to hospital within 14 days of a positive Covid-19 test was five per cent in the first week of this month. The figure had been 13 per cent in the final week of February.
Nicola Sturgeon this week delayed Scotland’s move to Level 0 of her five-tier system, which had been due on June 28, for at least a further three weeks, to allow more people to be fully vaccinated.
Nearly all Scots aged over 60 have been offered both doses, with the programme now reaching some of the youngest adults for first doses.
National Records of Scotland said yesterday that four people in the country had died due to adverse effects of coronavirus vaccines, with around six million doses administered.
Separate figures show that those in deprived areas are far less likely to turn up for vaccine appointments than those from richer parts of Scotland.
Almost a quarter – 24.5 per cent – of those from the poorest areas failed to turn up for their first dose appointment compared to 13.1 per cent in the richest areas.