Decisions by Scotland and Wales to rely on tougher Covid restrictions throughout the pandemic may not have been ‘worth it’, scientists said today.
Nicola Sturgeon is still yet to commit to a date for ending work from home guidance, despite England dumping the advice last week, while Mark Drakeford is refusing to lift the highly-controversial ‘rule of six’ for another four days.
Both nations resorted to tougher Covid curbs than England early out in the pandemic, and kept people living under economically-cripping curbs for longer.
But experts told MailOnline they could not see a ‘huge amount of difference’ in the cumulative death rates between England and the rest of the UK.
And they argued Omicron waves panned out similarly across the home nations, even though Downing St slipped through on relatively few rules.
This is despite Scotland cancelling New Year’s Eve celebrations and Mr Drakeford accusing England of being a ‘global outlier’ for Boris Johnson’s gamble to adopt no extra measures. Ms Sturgeon said yesterday Scotland’s tougher festive curbs were ‘worth it’, arguing they kept infection rates below levels south of the border.
This graph shows the cumulative Covid death rate for the four UK nations based on data from the Office for National Statistics, which counts every death certificate that mentions Covid. It reveals that despite its tough curbs Wales has the highest Covid death rate
Pictured above is the death rate over time between England’s four-nations per 100,000 people over the previous seven days, according to the Department of Health. Separate data based on death certificates from the Office for National Statistics shows Wales has the highest cumulative death rate followed by England, Scotland and Northern Ireland
This graph shows the Covid hospitalisation rate across the four nations of the UK during the pandemic. It shows although England’s rose to the highest level during the Omicron wave, it has now started to fall largely following the same trend as the other three nations
Pictured above is the infection rate across the UK’s four nations over time. Despite tougher curbs Northern Ireland has the highest infection rate. England has the second-highest, although it did have the lowest between Christmas and New Year
Latest statistics from the Department of Health show England saw the lowest Covid infection rate over the Christmas period, even though it was leading the way until December 23.
This is despite No10 refusing to cave in to demands for lockdown. Instead only ‘Plan B’ was introduced, which saw work from home guidance reimposed, face masks in public places and controversial vaccine passports required for nightclubs and other large indoor venues.
SAGE advisers say the Omicron wave fizzled out on its own because of behavioural changes that led to people being more cautious, as opposed to natural immunity causing the outbreak to peak.
When were the harshest Covid measures imposed across the UK?
When Covid struck the UK each country was allowed to make its own rules for fighting the virus.
Below is a timeline of lockdowns and other restrictions.
March 23 to May 3 – First national lockdown
October 14 to November 4 – Tier system
November 5 to December 2 – Second lockdown imposed
December 2 to January 5, now 2021 – Tiers system
January 6 to March 8 – Third national lockdown
December 8 to January 20, now 2022 – ‘Plan B’ restrictions
March 23 to May 29 – First national lockdown
November 5 to January 3, now 2021 – Levels imposed in Scotland
January 4 to April 29 – Second national lockdown
April 26 to August 9 – Levels system reimposed
December 8 onwards – Restrictions imposed to tackle the Omicron variant
March 23 to June 1 – First national lockdown
September 7 to October 22 – Local lockdown system
October 23 to November 9 – Second national lockdown
December 26 to March 15, now 2021 – Third national lockdown
March 23 to May 18 – First national lockdown
September 10 to October 13 – Local restrictions
October 14 to November 27 – Second national lockdown
November 28 to December 25 – Local restrictions
December 26 to March 22, now 2021 – Third national lockdown
December 22 onwards – Restrictions brought in to tackle Omicron
However, England is now back to having the second-highest infection rate (974.1 cases per 100,000 people in the week ending January 18) behind Northern Ireland (1,353.6).
For comparison, Scotland’s equivalent figure was 529.7 while it was 480.8 in Wales.
But England currently has the highest hospitalisation rate at 22.8 admissions per every 100,000 people in the seven-day spell ending January 17.
This is a third higher than the rate in Scotland, which has the second worst at 15.1.
Although, England’s rate is still less than half the levels witnessed during the depths of last winter, illustrating how well vaccines have worked at severing the once-impenetrable link between cases and serious illness.
And the rate is already trending downwards, mirroring patterns seen in the other three nations.
England also currently has the highest Covid death rate (2.7 fatalities a week for every 100,000 people), but this is roughly in line with Wales (2.3), Northern Ireland (2) and Scotland (1.9).
Scotland was quick to impose tighter curbs in December as the nation reeled over the arrival of the Omicron variant, which policymakers feared would spark a big wave in hospitalisations.
About a week after the first case was confirmed, Scottish health chiefs started advising the public not to attend Christmas parties — unlike their counterparts in England.
And as concern over its spread ramped up, Scots were then told not to gather with more than three households and supermarkets asked to impose a one-way system in an echo of the worst of the pandemic.
Imposing ever harsher curbs, Ms Sturgeon then ordered night clubs to close for three weeks and called off public gatherings for New Year’s Eve.
Wales trod a similar path, bringing in a raft of restrictions on Boxing Day that saw sporting events played behind closed doors, the ‘rule of six’ return in pubs, cinemas and restaurants, and nightclubs shuttered.
Mr Drakeford also brought back the two-metre social distancing rule in public places and offices.
Northern Ireland closed nightclubs from December 26 and even prohibited dancing in pubs and restaurants. They also reimposed table service.
For comparison, England only went as far as ‘Plan B’ — which included making face masks compulsory in indoor public places and bringing in vaccine passports for larger venues. No10 also pivoted back to advising people to work from home wherever possible.
But ministers never went as far as calling off New Year’s Eve celebrations, or bringing back tighter Covid curbs such as the ‘rule of six’, despite calls from some quarters.
Despite evidence that the curbs had made little difference on the trajectory of the Omicron wave, some scientists said they still appeared to be worth it.
Professor Gary McLean, an immunologist at London Metropolitan University, said: ‘I do think it was worth it, based on the unknown factor of Omicron. It’s too easy to look back with hindsight and say England got it right.
‘There was too much unknown about Omicron at the time the measures were put in place… I think England got lucky.’
Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, said: ‘It is difficult to see any evidence that tougher restrictions in Scotland actually had an impact over and above what we were seeing in England.’
In another sign tougher restrictions were not needed, England’s cumulative Covid death rate — the total number of fatalities per 100,000 people — still trails behind that of Wales.
This is despite Wales for instance imposing a circuit-breaker lockdown in late October and bringing in the five-mile rule asking people not to travel further than this distance from their home.
Scotland has also been tougher with its Covid restrictions, keeping face masks in place on public transport for weeks longer than England, while Northern Ireland took the longest to start easing the third lockdown.
‘No plans’ to scrap Covid vaccine mandate for frontline medics in England, Downing Street says
There are ‘no plans’ to scrap or delay the NHS Covid vaccination mandate in England despite a huge outcry over the move, Downing Street said today.
The Government has been warned the April 1 deadline for frontline medics to get two jabs could leave 80,000 vacancies and ‘paralyse’ the health service.
But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman doubled down on the move today, claiming that it was still ‘the right approach’.
They said it was medics’ duty to be vaccinated because they ‘look after the most vulnerable in society who face serious health consequences if exposed’ to Covid.
Thousands marched through central London on Sunday against the move and so-called ‘freedom rallies’ have also been held in Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds.
The Royal College of GPs has warned that a sudden exodus of unvaccinated staff could have ‘massive consequences’ on the NHS, and it has called for a delay to the deadline.
But the PM’s spokesman said: ‘There are no plans to change the implementation date for this policy.
‘Health and social care workers look after the most vulnerable people in society who face serious health consequences if exposed to the virus.’
Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at Reading University, said: ‘The different restrictions between the nations have not made a huge amount of difference (in terms of Covid deaths).
‘They are all in the same ball park of deaths per capita. It does not suggest that tougher restrictions that Wales or Scotland have put in place have really done very much.’
Wales has the highest rate of Covid fatalities (291.4 death certificates per every 100,000 people have mentioned the virus), just above England (262.3), Scotland (229.2) and Northern Ireland (213.2).
Ms Sturgeon suggested yesterday that Scotland’s tough Covid rules had been ‘worth it’ because they had kept the infection rate down.
But Professor Hunter said official statistics showed her rules had made ‘little difference’ in the progression of the Omicron wave.
He also warned that imposing restrictions was only likely to slow down a Covid wave rather than stop it, saying: ‘Early on restrictions were really good because they delayed most infections until vaccines were available.
‘But now actually delaying just means a delayed infection is more likely to be more severe, so paradoxically restrictions now will not ultimately reduce the disease burden largely because you are going to get the wave at some point.
‘If you get it soon after your booster roll out it is likely to be more mild, but if you get it six months down the line immunity may have dropped to a point where people are more likely to get severe disease.’
Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday Morning Ms Sturgeon said that it had been ‘worth it’ to impose tighter restrictions north of the border.
Asked if they helped curb the wave, she said: ‘The short answer, I think, is yes they were, although they have a big impact on businesses, and individuals.
‘If you look at the ONS [Office for National Statistics] survey, that one in 20 which you cited, in terms of the detail of that around 5.5 per cent of the population in England had the virus or were estimated to have the virus in that week.
‘It was around 4.5 per cent in Scotland, so that is a difference. And overall, throughout this pandemic, levels of infections have been lower in Scotland.’
She added: ‘I think that was a combination of the acceleration of the booster campaign… these sensible, balanced, protective measures we introduced before Christmas and lastly – perhaps most importantly – the magnificent, responsible response of the public who changed their behaviour in the face of Omicron in order to try to stem transmission.
‘So, yes, I think what we did has been worth it and we’re hopefully now seeing Scotland… very firmly on the downward slope of that Omicron wave.’
Scottish Conservative MP Murdo Fraser has laid into the First Minister over her tight rules, saying yesterday: ‘Nicola Sturgeon still can’t bring herself to admit the restrictions she imposed over Christmas were unnecessary.
‘The SNP are quick to impose Covid rules, but far too slow in getting vital funding to businesses.
‘It’s shameful that so many small companies are still waiting to receive a single penny.’