Coronavirus: ‘Super Saturday’, vaccines and mutant Covid strains

Coronavirus: 'Super Saturday', vaccines and mutant Covid strains
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IT is now clear that UK’s the second wave of coronavirus began in July. Some experts have gone so far as to pin it to one particular day: ‘Super Saturday’.

On July 4 in England, hairdressers, hotels, cinemas, restaurants and pubs re-opened nationwide – with some throwing open their doors for first orders at 6am after months of so-called “hibernation”.

The two-metre social distancing rule was halved for hospitality, allowing more customers to be accommodated at once, while pub owners in Berwick-upon-Tweed revealed that a third of their bookings had come from Scots defying the Scottish Government’s plea not to cross the border to drink.

At the time, Professor Devi Sridhar, one of the Scottish Government’s scientific advisors and the chair of global public health at Edinburgh University, said she “would be surprised to see case numbers stay low over next two weeks”.

HeraldScotland: 'Super Saturday' in England as pubs and bars were allowed to reopen for first time since March‘Super Saturday’ in England as pubs and bars were allowed to reopen for first time since March

A “zero-Covid approach” – that is, the virtual elimination of the virus to such low levels that it can be managed effectively through testing, tracing and isolating, allowing normality to return as has occurred in Taiwan and New Zealand – can “only happen with England’s cooperation”, added Prof Sridhar.

Instead, the UK lifted the lid on a virus that was still simmering and we began the inevitable climb back to where we are now.

What is clear from the data (available on the Office for National Statistics website) is that the UK case rate bottomed out on July 1, with an average of 572 cases per day over the previous seven days. It never fell any lower.

In Scotland, where the exit out of lockdown was slower and more cautious, beer gardens and outdoor hospitality re-opened on July 6, followed by indoor shopping malls on July 13, then hairdressers and indoor service at pubs, bars and restaurants on July 15.

READ MORE: How a mystery virus turned the world upside down – the first six months of the year in Covid 

Scrutinising the data in retrospect it is also as clear as it was predictable that this marked a turning point in the pandemic north of the border too.

On July 9, the seven-day average for Covid cases in Scotland fell to low of 7.1. Like the UK as a whole, an upward climb was soon underway – slow at first, and then rapid.

Household visiting rules were eased, allowing members of up to three separate households to meet up indoors.

July also saw restrictions lifted on international travel which meant that holidaymakers would not necessarily be required to quarantine for 14 days on return to the UK, depending on where they had been.

From July 10, Scotland formed so-called ‘air bridges’ with 57 destinations deemed to be low risk, including France, Germany, and Italy – but not Spain, where the prevalence of Covid was “significantly higher” than in Scotland.

HeraldScotland: Summer holidays resumed with quarantine measures - although some 'air bridge' destinations were exemptSummer holidays resumed with quarantine measures – although some ‘air bridge’ destinations were exempt

The move drew criticism from airlines and travel firms frustrated that holidaymakers were being deterred from visiting Scotland’s most popular sunshine destination.

More recently, the handling of international travel has been seen as one of the single biggest weaknesses of the UK’s pandemic response compared to other island nations such as Taiwan, New Zealand and Australia.

In Australia, borders have been closed since March except to returning Australian citizens and permanent residents.

Even then, all international arrivals are escorted by police from the airport to a hotel where they must remain in their room for 14 days at a cost to themselves of AU$10,000(£5,700).

Meals are ordered online and delivered to guests’ doors, and there are fines for anyone caught breaching quarantine.

To date, Australia has had 908 confirmed Covid deaths in a population of 25 million.

In Taiwan, isolation can be completed in a government-selected hotel or through ‘digital quarantine’ (where a person’s mobile phone is used to track their movements), and there are payments equivalent to around £30 per day to comply.

Breaches of the rules are taken extremely seriously, however, and have been punished with fines ranging from 10,000 to one million Taiwanese dollars (£2,600-£25,000).

In contrast, compliance with self-isolation in the UK has been low. One Government-funded survey of 32,000 people by King’s College London found that only 11 per cent of close contacts fully self-isolated, and just 18% of those with symptoms.

Between June 22 and December 20, more than 520,00 people arrived in Scotland from outside of the UK. Of these, 180,000 were required to quarantine but little was done to supervise or enforce it, and only 31,000 were ever spoken to by contact tracers.

READ MORE: Mutant strains mean we must rethink lockdown and self-isolation

A recent report found that Scotland came close to eliminating all first wave strains, but that the second wave was “seeded” in July and August by 46 “imports events”, largely from England and mainland Europe.

On August 5, Aberdeen was the first part of Scotland to find itself back in lockdown after an outbreak of coronavirus linked mainly to city centre pubs. All hospitality venues were forced to close for three weeks and city residents were banned from visiting other homes.

HeraldScotland: Aberdeen found itself back in lockdown in August after an outbreak linked to pubsAberdeen found itself back in lockdown in August after an outbreak linked to pubs

On August 11, schools began returning, followed days later by revelations that “dozens” of hospital patients – subsequently confirmed as 78 – had been transferred into Scotland’s care homes in March and April despite having tested positive for the virus.

Only 650 of the 3,599 elderly patients discharged from hospital during the period, up to April 21, had actually been tested however, so it remains unclear exactly how many cases entered care homes in this way.

Towards the end of August, Scotland was reporting 78 coronavirus cases per day and on August 28 Police Scotland were handed powers to break up gatherings of more than 15 people in private dwellings under new Covid ‘house party’ laws.

On September 1, household visiting was banned altogether in Glasgow, East Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire, with East Dunbartonshire and Renfrewshire added to the restrictions one week later, followed by North and South Lanarkshire on September 11, and eventually the whole of Scotland from September 23.

The surge coincided with the arrival of thousands of young people from all over the UK and the world onto university campuses and student accommodation across Scotland.

Asymptomatic transmission in halls of residence was a well-known high risk which had already played out in US colleges in August, leading Scottish Government advisors to call for regular mass testing of the student population.

Their advice was not acted on and, as hundreds of students found themselves confined to their rooms and taking classes online, questions were asked about why they had been made to come back at all.

HeraldScotland: Thousands of students across the UK were infected or forced to self-isolate in after outbreaks at halls of residenceThousands of students across the UK were infected or forced to self-isolate in after outbreaks at halls of residence

By the end of September, pubs and restaurants in Scotland were subject to a 10pm curfew as the Government sought, and failed, to stamp out the rising tide in cases.

As October arrived, US President Donald Trump tested positive for and recovered from Covid, telling his fellow citizens not to let the virus “take over your lives”.

By October 9, licensed hospitality venues in five health board areas – Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Lothian, Lanarkshire, Forth Valley and Ayrshire and Arran – closed for what Nicola Sturgeon described as a “short, sharp action to arrest a worrying increase in infection”.

The intervention was coloured by a row over how to distinguish cafes from restaurants, as the former were allowed to continue operating.

The Scottish Government defined them as premises “where the primary business activity is the sale of non-alcoholic drinks, snacks or light meals”, but the rules were later thrown into chaos when the owners of Eusebi’s Italian eaterie in Glasgow became the first business to successfully challenge attempts to force them to close.

READ MORE: Nearly 40% of coronavirus cases in Scotland linked to new UK variant

On October 26, the second wave peaked with an average of 1,328 Covid cases per day in Scotland.

November saw the introduction of a five-level tier system, briefly allowing hospitality to re-open (albeit with 6pm curfews and alcohol bans) in parts of the Central Belt which had previously been in lockdown.

But a real beacon of hope came with the news, on November 9, that pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, had developed the world’s first safe and effective Covid vaccine.

Not only was it the first vaccine ever successfully engineered against a coronavirus (SARS had died out before one could be created, and a possible MERS vaccine was still being trialled), it had been shown in clinical trials to be more than 90% effective at preventing Covid disease – an astonishing and unexpected result.

It was closely followed on November 16 by the US-made Moderna vaccine, with close to 95% efficacy, and on November 23 by the UK’s own Oxford vaccine – produced in collaboration with AstraZeneca – which was said to be between 62 and 90% effective at preventing disease, depending on the dosage.

The “light at the end of the tunnel” breakthrough brought relief just as 11 council areas – Glasgow, Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire, East Dunbartonshire, West Dunbartonshire, North and South Lanarkshire, East Ayrshire, South Ayrshire, Stirling and West Lothian – were escalated into Level Four, once again closing all hospitality venues along with non-essential shops, cinemas, and gyms.

HeraldScotland: Grandmother Margaret Keenan was the first person in the world to be vaccinated outside of clinical trialsGrandmother Margaret Keenan was the first person in the world to be vaccinated outside of clinical trials

December began with hope as the UK medicines regulator approved the Pfizer vaccine and, on December 12, 90-year-old grandmother Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to be immunised against a disease that has so far claimed at least 1.7 million lives globally.

Families were told they would be able to form Christmas bubbles of up to three households for five days, from December 23 to 27, under agreements struck by all four national governments.

The move – already greeted with apprehension by public health experts and epidemiologists – quickly unravelled, however, as it emerged that the UK was in already the grip of a new, fast-spreading variant of the Covid virus which seems to have first emerged in Kent in September.

Then, on December 23, it transpired than an even more contagious mutant strain, originating in South Africa, had been detected in the UK.

We leave 2020 in the midst of a third wave, with average daily cases UK-wide rising 114% between November 29 and December 16.

Our best hope remains the vaccine, but we also face a long, uncertain winter and, potentially, a return to months-long lockdowns we believed were behind us.



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