113 is the magic number. That’s how many times Covid-19 was “introduced” to Scotland aboard flights in late February and the whole of March, according to a new University of Glasgow study. In more than half of these cases (56 per cent) there was “onward transmission” to others in Scotland. It took 11 days for Scotland to go from primarily travel-associated transmission to primarily community transmission, at which point the impact of international travel on total transmission became statistically negligible.
“Earlier travel restrictions and quarantine measures might have resulted in fewer introductions into Scotland, thereby reducing the number of cases and the subsequent burden on health services,” the study finds.
While UK and Scottish authorities had their eyes on China, the cases were overwhelmingly entering Scotland via Europe, especially Italy, at “the end of February and early March”, as travellers returned from business trips, holidays or, in the case of the first known Scottish case, a rugby match.
“On 28 January, the UK Government recommended against all but essential travel to China and for returning travellers to self-isolate for two weeks upon their return regardless of symptoms. However, despite evidence of local transmission in Italy as early as 21 February, advice from the Scottish Government for returning travellers from Italy to self-isolate was issued only on 25 February and was limited to those having returned from specific lockdown areas (28-30). By the time this advice was extended to all travellers on 10 March, the Covid-19 outbreak within Scotland was already being driven by community transmission.A lack of robust measures to manage ingress of infected travellers from emerging pandemic hotspots may have accelerated the course of the outbreak in Scotland and the UK as a whole,” the study states.
The Scottish Government has sought to emphasise a line in the study about the Nike conference outbreak, on 26-27 February, that suggests their track and trace efforts were successful in containing that specific local outbreak in the UK, with the last known case connected to it on 27 March, but we should also worry about the international impact. The study finds it flew from there back to four continents and ten countries, including Ecuador, a nation far less equipped to cope with Covid-19 than Scotland. Were efforts made to warn authorities in other countries, and why were those at the conference allowed to board flights before 14 days of self-isolating?
“The role of this event in dispersing the virus locally and internationally, before a single case had been identified in Scotland, demonstrates that governments should be wary of prematurely relaxing restrictions on large gatherings and international travel,” the study finds.
It’s remarkable that it was not until Monday, 8 June, that the 14 days self-isolation rule on those travelling on flights to the UK and Scotland was introduced. Talk about closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Why there was not more concern about returning travellers from Italy among UK and Scottish authorities after it was clear that there was an outbreak there is another question for the inquiry, but for now government should heed the advice of the researchers and make sure that they are not bullied into removing international travel restrictions by a desperate aviation and tourism industry lobby. It’s bad enough making tragic errors once and taking over three months to rectify – don’t then repeat them because Michael O’Leary at RyanAir says they are a “stunt”.
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