Scotland ‘was not close to elimination’ of COVID at any stage, says government adviser
Scotland was not close to elimination of coronavirus "at any stage" during the epidemic, an epidemiologist has said.
Professor Mark Woolhouse, of Edinburgh University, said "reliable" estimates showed the country never dropped below 500 cases of the virus.
The expert's perspective, which was shared at Holyrood's COVID-19 Committee, differs from previous comments made by the First Minister, who said in the summer Scotland was not "far away" from elimination.
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 using a method that has been very well validated since, so it works, so these estimates are reliable.
"The estimates were that we never fell below 500 cases in Scotland, with some uncertainty around that, but that is the best estimate - we never fell below that.
"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 circulating particularly in young adult groups that don't show many 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 and we proceeded."
Members were taking evidence from international public health and epidemiological experts, including Professor Michael Baker of the University of Otago in Wellington, New Zealand.
New Zealand has been highlighted as a successful example of an elimination strategy, where life is largely back to normal because of border controls and tight quarantine and testing measures.
Baker said the essence of the approach was to "aim for no COVID transmission in the community", adding that three broad approaches were used in the island country to achieve that.
He explained: "Obviously managing borders, with very tight quarantine and testing, then using measures to decrease transmission at a population level and that is physical distancing, lockdowns used in a short decisive way and more recently mask use.
"The third major strategy has been testing and tracing and we initially used quite an intense lockdown for five weeks and then a less intense lockdown for a couple of weeks and we emerged into a virus free country.
"That gave us time to really build up our testing and contact tracing system so that now we get occasional incursions of the virus mainly through border failures and we can now manage those quite effectively with testing and contact tracing."
According to Woolhouse, who is a professor of infectious disease epidemiology and Scottish Government adviser, Scotland missed its chance to be like New Zealand back in February of last year.
He said that if the UK had put border controls in place in March, it would still have been "far too late". However, he said the potential "game-changer" is the vaccine. In Scotland, almost 1.5 million people have had their first dose of the jag.
Woolhouse added: "No country with an epidemic the size of Scotland's has managed to have even a smaller second wave than first wave. They all have bigger second waves.
"No country with half the epidemic size of Scotland has avoided a bigger second wave. No country with 1/10 the epidemic size of Scotland has avoided a bigger second wave.
"There appears to be no route or at least no route that any country in the world has found to get from where Scotland is now to where New Zealand is now. The route was back in February. We missed our chance to be like New Zealand back in February.
"By March when New Zealand took the New Zealand route it was already too late for us and now it's far too late... The game-changer possibly... is the vaccines and whether we can achieve the herd immunity threshold."