Nicola Sturgeon has insisted she remains hopeful that Covid restrictions will be eased this month despite health chiefs warning that her contact tracing system is collapsing and experts predicting the record surge in virus cases will get much worse.
The First Minister announced the country’s vaccination programme is to be ramped up, with the introduction of more walk-in and mobile jab centres, as part of a race to get more of the population fully protected.
However, modelling carried out by her own advisors has warned that infection numbers, already at unprecedented levels, could spiral to more than 20,000 per day by the middle of the month, when as many as 700 hospital beds could be occupied with Covid patients.
Even under a “best case” scenario set out by experts, there will be more than 5,000 new infections per day by July 19, when Scotland is due to move to Level 0. A wider lifting of legal restrictions for Freedom Day is currently planned for August 9.
Eleanor Gaunt, a virologist at the Edinburgh University’s Roslin Institute, predicted that within a few weeks there could be 100 hospital admissions per day in Scotland and said it would be “incredibly irresponsible” to stick to the timetable if, as she expects, case numbers are still rising.
On Friday, 3,823 new cases were reported, after a new daily record of 4,234 was set on Thursday, with the more transmissible delta variant and an increase in socialising linked in part to Euro 2020 behind the rise.
Hospital admissions have also begun to increase despite the success of the vaccination programme, with 285 in wards yesterday and 18 in intensive case. Over the last week, 15 deaths were reported.
The increase has put significant pressure on Scotland’s test and protect system, with NHS Grampian yesterday saying it was no longer able to carry out contact tracing for every positive case.
Instead of being interviewed, people testing positive are being asked to fill out details of people they had come into contact with themselves on an online form.
Advisers to Ms Sturgeon have said there is more than 75 per cent probability that Edinburgh will have more than 2,000 cases per 100,000 people by July 17, compared to a rate of 584 currently.
“The NHS is behind on things like elective procedures and cancer targets so they really don’t have the capacity to deal with a third epidemic wave right now,” Dr Gaunt told The Telegraph.
“The other things we need to think about are Long Covid, which is not captured in the data on hospitalisations or deaths but it’s a huge disease burden and is really being overlooked.
“We can’t continue to ease restrictions when we’ve got this exponential increase in the number of cases, we need to have those case numbers level or falling before we consider that.
“I think it would be incredibly irresponsible [to ease restrictions if numbers are still rising] given the potential burden on the NHS, the lack of understanding of the long term complications associated with infection and the potential for the emergence of new variants.”
The Scottish government modelling shows that under a “pessimistic” scenario, there will be just over 20,000 new infections per day by mid-July. A central estimate predicts around 12,000 infections per day, with an optimistic scenario putting the daily rate at just over 5,000 new infections.
Scotland’s infection rate is now higher than England’s
According to separate Office for National Statistics estimates, in the week to June 26, one in every 150 people in Scotland had Covid, compared to one in every 266 in England and one in every 450 in Wales.
Asked about the dire predictions outlined in the modelling yesterday, Ms Sturgeon said there was no “inevitability” that cases would surge.
“We know there are things we can do to stop that,” she said. “We are not at the moment, on a trajectory that looks as if it is the worst case that we set out. That’s not to say we’re in a place we want to be.”
She admitted Test and Protect was under “more pressure” but insisted it was "coping well."
Asked whether the rise in case numbers had placed her timetable for easing restrictions in jeopardy, Ms Sturgeon said: “I’m not going to stand and look at the case numbers that we’ve got right now and say I’m not concerned at all about that.
“But I’m not as concerned about case numbers as I would have been in January because we didn’t have people vaccinated.
“The dates we set for July 19 and August 9 are not tied to particular rates of infection, they are tied to vaccination milestones, and therefore I still very much hope to be in a position to meet those dates.”