'Dangerous' to think Scotland is escaping virus lightly - health chiefs

Scotland’s deputy chief medical officer has moved to quash any perception that Scotland is somehow ‘getting off lighter’ in terms of the coronavirus crisis.

Thursday, 2nd April 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Thursday, 2nd April 2020, 7:25 am
One death from Covid-19 every three minutes

Dr Gregor Smith said it was “dangerous” for people to assume this given the countries death rate which is lower in comparison to England, although he agreed with medical experts that Scotland was lagging around a week behind London and the South-East in terms of virus spread.

He was speaking shortly after the latest figures for Scotland were announced with the death toll now at 76 since the first case was reported on 1st March, with 2,310 people testing positive.

The 16 deaths in Scotland formed part of 563 deaths UK-wide in a single day which represents one fatality every three minutes.

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The belief is that the effect of lockdown measures will be more pronounced in Scotland, where the first confirmed case on1st March, a Tayside resident who had returned from Italy, was around three weeks after the UK’s first cases in York at the end of January.

Because Scotland was at an earlier stage in the country’s ‘epidemic curve’ when Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed hardline social distancing conditions across the UK on 23rd March - it is thought this will mean the death rate will be lower.

He said: “It’s always dangerous to make statements like we’re getting off lighter.

“Clearly there’s people up and down the country in hospitals just now who wouldn’t recognise that as feeling as though they’re getting off lightly, because we still have a lot of ill people in our hospitals and we stil had people in Scotland who unfortunately have died as a result of this.

“We can say that we’re at a different stage from that which London and the south east is experiencing just now - they appear to be ahead of us in the ‘epidemic curve’.”

Professor Mark Woolhouse, chair of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University’s Deanery of Population Health Sciences, had told the Herald the epidemic was ‘six or seven’ days behind the one in London in terms of the fraction of the population testing positive.

He added that may be a factor in the per capita number of deaths in Scotland until the end of the lockdown being lower.

Dr Smith said: “When I read statements from people like Professor Woolhouse who estimate that we’re six or seven days behind London in terms of our experience then that’s certainly plausible.

“We’ve got figures that have been specifically modelled for Scotland and that work is continuing.

“I think what we would recognise is that when the counter measures where put in place across the UK, they were put in place as a blanket across the UK.

“That means the impact of those counter measures are going to be felt across the UK at the same time.

“Because we were at a different point in that epidemic curve and several days behind London - a week to 10 days behind is not an unreasonable estimate for that.

“It should mean that although we’ll experience the peak at the same time as the rest of the country that peak should be of a smaller magnitude.”

Dr Smith also said that underlying health conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular and respiratory disease were the kind of conditions that could put people more at risk of the flu and were contributing risk factors in the more acute cases of coronavirus.

But he was quick to point out that similarities with seasonal winter flu which claimed the lives of an additional 810 people across Scotland by underlying cause between December 2017 - March 2018 ended there - as no vaccine or immunity for Covid-19 currently exists.

He added: “At this stage our biggest concern is that this is a wholly novel, new virus that the community has no pre-existing immunity to and that’s really important.

“With the seasonal flu that comes in year-in-year out by its very definition people build some form of immunity over time - so have some form of protection towards that.

“But this is a whole new virus and we don’t have any of that immunity built up - that makes us more vulnerable.

“I don’t think it’s helpful to compare it to seasonal flu - it behaves in a completely different way.

“Because of all the advances in seasonal flu over the years, we’ve got vaccines there that are really effective in protecting people and we’ve even got some anti-viral medications that can help us for people who do get ill.

“With this virus it’s all very, very new - we don’t have a vaccine and there isn’t a medication that we can turn to for those who are more seriously ill so that does make the population in general much more vulnerable.”

In terms of the lockdown lifting Dr Smith said it was important to be guided by the scientists from SPI-M, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling Group, which reports to SAGE and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies who advised the UK government to put the measures in place.

He said: “The really important thing here is that in terms of the application of those measures put in place were very much guided by the science that told us this was the right time, the right stage to put those into place.

“Considering we’re guided by the scientists who put them into place - it’s really, really important that we’re guided by the scientists as to how we start to withdraw those as well.

“The modelling that groups like SPI-M and SAGE will be considering over the coming days - is what does that mean in terms of how we release those [lockdown] measures and how do we do that in a way that the country as a whole isn’t put at risk by a resurgence of any of the virus as well?”

He added: “There are a lot of particular Scottish dimension in any health data,

“There’s first of all that unique Scottish landscape where we have much more patients living in more rural settings than certainly the south of England.

“But it’s more than that as Scotland’s health profile is a little bit different, so we need to make sure we’re taking into consideration those co-morbidity that people have, the health conditions that people carry with them.”

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