Coronavirus Scotland: Beyond Zero and Scotland’s surprise fall in infections

IS it over? Confirmed Covid cases are a third of what they were a month ago. The number of people in hospital with the virus peaked on July 19 and has been falling steadily ever since.

Deaths linked to Covid are down for the first time in seven weeks, and even the R number has dipped below one for the first time since May in a sign that the explosive Delta epidemic is finally shrinking.

Against this backdrop, Scotland is poised to resume the closest thing to normal life in 17 months.

Nightclubs can reopen on Monday for the first time since March 2020, with some venues set to welcome facemask-free revellers back onto dancefloors from midnight tomorrow.

READ MORE: Hundreds jam Covid certificate helpline over missing and incorrect vaccine details 

Pub-goers can order and drink at the bar as mandatory table service ends – though customers must still provide their details for contact tracing.

Restaurants, cinemas, and other leisure venues can return to full capacity as physical distancing rules are lifted.

Football clubs can welcome back full crowds subject to local authority permission for outdoor events larger than 5000 people and indoor events exceeding 2000 attendance.

The organisers behind Glasgow’s TRNSMT music festival say it has been granted permission to welcome 50,000 partygoers a day without social distancing in September.

HeraldScotland: Pub-goers can order at the bar again from MondayPub-goers can order at the bar again from Monday

Some mitigations will remain – face coverings must be worn on public transport, in shops, and when moving around inside pubs and restaurants – and overseas travel is still subject to an ever-changing traffic light system, quarantine, testing, and vaccination requirements.

Nonetheless, Scotland – and the rest of the UK – finds itself in a much better position than many scientists expected at this stage.

Exactly why – and what lies ahead – is not yet clear.

Scottish Government epidemiologists had forecast a worst case scenario of more than 30,000 infections per day by early August (based on confirmed, undetected and asymptomatic cases combined).

READ MORE: Mass vaccination hub no-show rates exceeded 60% on some days in May

They now estimate the figure is actually no more than around 6,200 per day – and may be as low as 3,100.

The move to Level Zero on July 19 has not translated into an uptick in people testing positive, which would have been seen by now.

A number of factors may have helped.

July was Scotland’s third hottest on record, encouraging people to meet outdoors where the risk of transmission is tiny compared to indoor gatherings.

HeraldScotland: Despite restrictions easing, contact patterns have remained roughly the same since mid-May indicating no dramatic change in behaviour Despite restrictions easing, contact patterns have remained roughly the same since mid-May indicating no dramatic change in behaviour

The latest ‘Modelling the Epidemic’ report shows that average daily contacts have remained stable at between four and five per person since Level Two in mid-May (compared to around three to four in January when vaccination rates were much lower), but that during July a growing proportion of contacts were occurring outdoors while indoor-only contact declined.

HeraldScotland: Meetings between people indoors have declined since the beginning of July, and outdoor contact rose (Modelling the Epidemic)Meetings between people indoors have declined since the beginning of July, and outdoor contact rose (Modelling the Epidemic)

Scotland’s exit from the Euros on June 23 also appears to have curbed infections, with confirmed cases (based on the seven-day average by date of testing) peaking exactly 14 days later on July 3.

The tournament was linked to nearly 2000 cases involving fans who had travelled to London, attended stadiums, or watched matches in the Fanzone and subsequently tested positive, although it is generally impossible to pinpoint in retrospect exactly where someone was infected.

Many more cases are believed to have been caused by an increase in people gathering in pubs or meeting in one another’s homes during the Euros.

HeraldScotland: Confirmed Covid cases have been falling steadily since early July. In 2020, cases began to climb steadily upwards from July 9 onwardsConfirmed Covid cases have been falling steadily since early July. In 2020, cases began to climb steadily upwards from July 9 onwards

Schools closing may be a factor as the twice-weekly lateral flow testing of pupils fed into higher detection rates, especially of asymptomatic cases, not only among children but in the adults they live with.

Notably, however, last year’s school holidays actually marked a negative turning point in the pandemic, with cases bottoming out at around seven per day on July 9 before creeping back up to 120 per day by September 1.

This year’s decline in cases (backed up by a similar fall in hospital admissions from a daily average of 87.7 on July 13 to 45.6 by August 1) probably reflects the effect of mass vaccination.

HeraldScotland: Hospital admissions for Covid have been falling steadily since mid-JulyHospital admissions for Covid have been falling steadily since mid-July

On the one hand, herd immunity is unlikely to have been reached given that the Delta variant’s high transmissibility has pushed that threshold well over 85% and at present 27% of 18 to 29-year-olds remain unvaccinated.

Furthermore, as of July 5, according to blood sample analysis for Public Health Scotland, only a quarter of Scots aged 0-19 had Covid antibodies, which would mostly have been acquired through natural infection.

Wastewater surveillance indicates that the concentrations of Covid-19 RNA – the genetic material for the virus – found in sewage across Scotland has declined by around a fifth in the most recent week but still remains at a similar level to that of January and February.

HeraldScotland: Wastewater surveillance levels of Covid matched confirmed cases from March until late June, but during July wastewater surveillance rates have been notably higher than official ratesWastewater surveillance levels of Covid matched confirmed cases from March until late June, but during July wastewater surveillance rates have been notably higher than official rates

At all sites except Edinburgh wastewater Covid levels “[continue] to be higher than would be expected given the current rate of new cases”, according to the ‘Modelling the Epidemic’ report, while in South Lanarkshire wastewater Covid levels are now “significantly above the national average, in contrast to the low levels of new cases observed”.

However, just as vaccinations have significantly reduced the proportion of infections that result in severe illness and hospital admission, they have also reduced the proportion of cases that show symptoms at all.

READ MORE: Why the Delta variant has left herd immunity through vaccinations mathematically impossible

This is particularly likely to be the case among recently vaccinated people in their 30s and 40s who are now, respectively, 52% and 82% fully inoculated.

Vaccinations have been such a powerful weapon against the virus that Scotland can drop the vast majority of restrictions on Monday at a time when confirmed cases are still averaging more than 1000 per day, compared to 49 per day on the same date last year.

The pandemic still has a long way to go, both here and around the world. Autumn and winter will be challenging, new variants still threaten, and the lasting legacy of Covid on the NHS and population health will be profound.

But we are arriving at ‘Beyond Zero’ on a better footing than most dared to hope so it is possible, at the very least, that the worst is finally over.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992