CORONAVIRUS infections could surge to more than 100,000 per week by mid-July according to a worst-case scenario modelled by scientists for the Scottish Government.
The pessimistic forecast – which was drawn up by epidemiologists before daily infections hit an all-time high of more than 3000 – also predicts that over a 1000 hospital beds could be occupied by Covid patients by the middle of next month.
However, the authors caution that there is still “considerable uncertainty” over what will happen to case rates over the coming weeks.
Professor Linda Bauld, chair of public health at Edinburgh University, said restrictions would have to be reimposed and Scotland’s planned progress into Level Zero in July postponed if infection levels did hit 100,000.
However she added that she was hopeful the school holidays would contribute to a slowdown in the virus spreading.
It comes as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made an unscheduled television appeal to the Scottish public last night, urging them to “do all of the things that help slow the virus down”, including physical distancing and meeting outdoors where possible.
The latest ‘Modelling the Epidemic’ report, produced for the Scottish Government, is based on the number of positive tests reported up to June 24 plus estimates for the numbers of asymptomatic and undetected cases present in the community.
Scientists feed in other key data, such as the R number, behaviour patterns, average contacts, plans for the vaccine rollout, and current assumptions about the vaccines’ efficacy in preventing infections and hospitalisations, in order to provide ministers with medium-term forecasts of a better and worse case scenario.
The worst-case scenario would see infections reach around 112,000 per week just after mid-July, compared to a better-case scenario where weekly cases plateau below 10,000 per week.
The reports states that the worst-case scenario is “based on a sustained increase in transmission rate at a level that could have caused the recent increase in cases”.
On Wednesday and Thursday last week, daily confirmed cases exceeded 2,900 for the first time in the pandemic.
Subsequent data shows that this pattern continued over the weekend, with 2836 cases reported on Saturday, 2639 on Sunday, and then a record-breaking 3285 yesterday.
Case numbers have more than doubled, from just over 8000 for the week ending June 21 to more than 18,600 in the week to June 28.
The surge has largely been driven by a rapid increase in cases among unvaccinated under-30s, particularly in young men, leading to speculation that increased socialising indoors in pubs and households as people watched Euros football matches together could have fuelled the virus spread.
The modellers’ better scenario is based on last week’s spike “being short-lived” and the transmission rate falling back to previous levels.
The report said: “The increase in cases seen in the last few days is likely to lead to an increase in hospitalisations and intensive care use, with considerable uncertainty as to future weeks.”
The hospital forecasts – which the scientists note have been “generally more precise than infections estimates” – anticipate that there will be anything from around 400 to 1,200 Covid patients in hospital approaching mid-July, including those who will have been there more than 28 days. However, the margin of error suggests this could even exceed 2000.
Published figures show there are currently 202 Covid patients in hospital in Scotland, although these only include people who have tested positive in the past 28 days.
On intensive care, the modelling ranges from a worst-case scenario of around 30 to just over 100 patients in ICU with Covid by late July, which compares to a peak of 161 during the second wave in January.
“These are very big numbers and there is a big gap between their better and their worst case scenario which suggests they are still very unsure,” said Prof Bauld, though she added that the latest daily Covid figures “look quite scary”.
Scotland is set to move to Level Zero nationally from July 19, allowing larger groups to socialise indoors, an end to restrictions on outdoor mixing, and gatherings of up to 200 people at weddings and funerals.
On August 9, Scotland would progress “beyond zero”, potentially ending physical distancing.
On Sunday, Professor Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director, said he was hopeful that football stadiums would be able to return to full capacity from then on.
By early June, vaccinations meant that just three to four per cent of Covid cases were translating into a hospital admission, compared to a peak of 14% in January.
Even if that declined to 2% by mid-July, however, 100,000 infections would still result in 2000 admissions at a time when demand for beds is rapidly increasing among non-Covid patients.
Prof Bauld said: “At the beginning of February we had just under 2000 people in hospital so if we got back into that situation I don’t see how they could proceed without reimposing restrictions, really.
“Schools have been a big driver in recent weeks – they’re not the source necessarily, but there were some 20,000 children not in school, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re going to see these numbers come down.
“I would hope it will actually decline or at least do what they’ve got in their better case scenario and sort of level out a bit.
“In the immediate term though, all these men that were picking up the virus from doing what they were doing around mass events – they are now infecting their household members.”
Ms Sturgeon acknowledged that there had been “quite a steep rise” in cases, but said a formal review of the lifting of restrictions would be carried out nearer the time.
She added: “While this vaccine programme is highly effective, vaccines are not 100% effective.
“So if we don’t want to see the virus run ahead of the vaccines, it’s really important everybody is really careful.”