From late December to early January, Scotland experienced a surge in positive COVID cases with the spread of the Omicron variant. Daily positive cases in Scotland peaked on 2 January at about 20,000 before rapidly declining. By February, the number of positive cases continued to fall and by the end of the month, an average of 5,500 new cases were recorded daily.
However, cases have once again risen. On Tuesday, 10,710 new cases were reported, alongside 31 deaths of individuals who had tested positive. Recent figures have revealed that since 12 March, 38,770 new cases have been confirmed. This sharp rise in cases is reflected in the recent upturn in hospitalisation rates. On Wednesday, 1,999 individuals were hospitalised for COVID reasons, compared to 1,060 patients three weeks ago. The current number of patients with the virus is higher than that during the Omicron surge this January, and just short of the peak of 2,085 patients in January 2021.
The rise in positive cases is largely due to the emergence of a more contagious sub-variant of Omicron, BA.2. BA.2, sometimes referred to as the “Stealth Variant,” is currently the dominant strain in Scotland, accounting for about 85% of positive cases. Though the sub-variant spreads faster and more easily, it does not increase the severity of illness.
The high number of cases may also be attributed to waning immunity. For those who received their jabs last autumn, the protection from the virus provided by the vaccine is wearing off. Similarly, the 90-day immunity window for those who had COVID several months ago may be coming to an end, decreasing the protection offered by their jab.
In response to climbing COVID numbers, on Tuesday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that she would not lift remaining restrictions on 21 March as previously planned. She has decided to keep the current measures in place, specifically emphasising the requirement to wear a face covering in shops in public transport, which will remain in place until at least early April. In backing up her decision, she explained, “Ensuring maximum continued use of face covering will provide some additional protection- particularly for the most vulnerable- at a time when the risk of infection is high.”
Not everyone, however, is supportive of her announcement. Many conservative politicians have opposed the extension of the mask rule. Some argue that masks make no significant difference, as people do not wear masks in areas where it would be most effective in preventing infection, such as with family and friends. Others, such as leader of the Scottish Conservative Party Douglas Ross, called the extension of the mask rule a “u-turn,” further adding, “We need to move forward- we can’t stay stuck with COVID rules forever.”
Yet, others feel that keeping the mask mandate in place is reasonable, especially considering current high transmission rates. Health Secretary Humza Yousaf defended Sturgeon’s decision to extend face covering rules, claiming that the evidence of their effectiveness is “indisputable.”
Deputy First Minister John Swin- ney shared a similar perspective, adding, “There should be also the advice for vulnerable people, it might be a good moment, or probably a very pertinent moment, to upgrade masks to so-called FFP2 or N95.”
The University also supported Sturgeon’s cautionary move. An email from Principal Sally Mapstone on Thursday stated, “For the remainder of this semester at least, the University will be advising that face-coverings should continue to be worn indoors after 4 April.”
The principal strongly urges students and staff to contin- ue to wear masks, as they help to prevent the spread of the virus and are a sign of respect for the health of fellow students and staff.
Image: Gerd Altmann