Data comes as UK’s scientific advisers to no longer meet on regular basis to discuss pandemic
Nicola Davis and Hannah Devlin Science Correspondents
Covid infection levels are rising in Scotland, figures suggest, as it was confirmed that the UK’s scientific advisers no longer expect to meet regularly to discuss Covid.
About one in 19 people in Scotland had Covid in the week ending 26 February, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics based on swabs from randomly selected households.
By contrast, infection levels have continued to fall in England and Northern Ireland, with the trend unclear in Wales. About one in 30 people in England are estimated to have had Covid in the week ending 26 February.
With infection levels still high across the UK, it was confirmed that the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) is not expecting to meet on Covid regularly though it will stand ready if required.
Friday’s ONS data reveals that the BA.2 Omicron variant – a “close cousin” of the original BA.1 variant of Omicron but described as “stealth” as it is harder to track – is on the rise in all UK countries except Northern Ireland. The BA.1 variant of Omicron is in decline in all countries except Scotland.
Infection levels in Scotland peaked most recently in early January when about one in 18 people had Covid, with levels falling to one in 30 by the middle of the month. Since then they have been rising.
The increase appears to be in those around the ages of 30 and 60, with the trend uncertain for children and younger adults.
An increase has also been seen in data for confirmed Covid patients in hospital in Scotland: after reaching a peak of 1,571 on 19 January, the figure fell, hitting 868 on 13 February. Since then it has risen to 1,272 Covid patients in hospital in Scotland on 3 March.
The uptick has not been reflected in hospital admissions data. However, one expert suggested that may be linked to a data problem.
Prof Christina Pagel, director of UCL’s Clinical Operational Research Unit and a member of the Independent Sage group, said it was unclear what was behind the trend in Scotland.
“I think the situation in Scotland is quite concerning – they are clearly an outlier in UK with rising cases – by ONS and their dashboard – and rising people in hospital,” she said, adding the decline in the number of people with Covid on their death certificate had also stalled.
Pagel suggested there are a number of possible explanations for the trend, including that there may be more people in Scotland who have not previously been infected than in England, meaning BA.2 can spread more easily. Less likely, she said, was that a new subvariant of Omicron was starting to spread.
Pagel said another possibility is that a combination of factors such as the waning of protection from boosters, an increase in mixing in the wake of relaxed mitigations, and a rise in BA.2 might be behind the trend.
Prof Paul Hunter, of the University of East Anglia, said there were also some early indications in case data for England that Covid could be on the rise, adding that was more likely due to the increase in the more transmissible BA.2 variant .
That does not mean Covid measures should return, he said. “Ultimately infections would then shoot up later in the year when vaccine effectiveness has fallen even more,” he said. “But it is another reminder, if one were needed, that we are not out of the woods yet and those people who are more vulnerable to severe disease do need to continue to do things like wear face coverings when in indoor crowded environments and of course go for a booster if and when called.”