The ‘R’ rate in Scotland “could have been as high as 1.3” last week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said yesterday. At the same time, they think there was only 250 infectious people in Scotland. So Coronavirus is at a low base level, but if on average each person with Covid-19 is infecting 1.3 others, the effects of exponential growth quickly kick-in. Ally this with the latest daily data showing one per cent of people being tested are now coming back positive for Covid-19, and it suggests Scotland is on a dangerous track.
This was not exactly the summer of ‘close-to-elimination’ the Scottish Government were aiming for. It was always questionable that the First Minister was using the language of elimination – which is supposed to mean going all-out to end community transmission like the New Zealand approach, where the term was coined – while fully re-opening schools and hospitality, reducing the two metre rule to one metre, creating ‘air bridges’ with most of the world, etc. A serious elimination strategy could not be painless.
Nonetheless, we are where we are. The Scottish Government have announced strengthening of rules around bars and restaurants so that the guidance is now the law, which seems like a sensible move. We know internationally that bars and restaurants have been a significant source of new outbreaks, as have seasonal agricultural workers living in close proximity, night-clubs and house parties. In general, new outbreaks in Europe have been a younger demographic than at the start of the crisis, which is a good thing because they are less likely to be seriously harmed, but symptom-less carriers are of course also much harder to pick up. Vigilance is required.
Which brings us to the schools fully re-opening this week. Education Secretary John Swinney has announced that teachers can get a test on request, regardless of whether they have symptoms. That’s an improvement, but it’s hardly a systematic approach – why not just have mandatory teacher testing? It’s also not clear why there are not temperature checks for students as they enter school, a screening approach that is widely used in other countries. One US policy brief on schools re-opening examined China, Denmark, Norway, Singapore and Taiwan’s approaches, which have all had schools re-opened since at least April, and found all of them used temperature checks upon school arrival, with Singapore and China using them twice daily. While there is not a lot of specific evidence internationally linking schools re-openings to outbreaks, minimising risk at every possible opportunity is surely logical.
No doubt readers are growing weary of Covid-19 warnings and debates about restriction measures, as are we. But it can’t be said enough that the greater the resurgence, the greater the risk to life, and the greater the disruption of lives and the economy. What countries like Spain have found is what can look like an outbreak localised to one part of the country can quickly pop up just about everywhere if resolute action is not taken to stem it. And the greater the growth, the less capable the contact tracing system is of tracking it. There is really only one way to tackle covid-19 effectively in lieu of a vaccine, and that is to take the short-term pain of tough government restrictions and investment in effective screening measures which suppress the virus down to very low levels, and then be on guard for new outbreaks. The alternative is long-term pain for everyone.
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