Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that Scotland was “close” to eliminating Covid-19 last summer has been contradicted by one of her handpicked advisers.
Mark Woolhouse, chairman of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, told MSPs that "Scotland was not close to elimination at any stage" during the pandemic and also questioned whether the First Minister’s strategy for tackling the virus was achievable.
The First Minister has repeatedly insisted that Covid-19 was “almost eliminated” in Scotland last summer but that it was “reseeded” after being brought back into the country mainly from both UK and overseas travel.
She has used the claim to justify her harsh stance on international and internal travel and her cautious approach to easing restrictions.
However, Prof Woolhouse, who also sits on Ms Sturgeon’s Covid-19 advisory group, said that it is a “misinterpretation” to suggest that the virus was close to elimination during the summer when only a handful of cases per day were being reported because a large number of infected people were not getting tested at the time.
When testing capacity improved, however, there was a "dramatic increase" in positive cases among younger people who are much less likely to show symptoms. Best estimates from “very well-validated” modelling groups suggest that cases in Scotland never fell below 500, he said.
Prof Woolhouse also questioned the plausibility of Scotland eliminating the virus in the near future, a strategy Ms Sturgeon has backed, warning that the country remains on a “knife edge” in terms of suppressing new variants and that the Kent variant is barely being driven down “at all”.
“The situation is different with the vaccine,” he told The Telegraph. “Elimination is a more feasible option with a vaccine, but that doesn’t mean it’s achievable, and if it is it will not be done by the vaccine alone.
“We would have to endure quite considerable restrictions for quite some time to achieve it, and it’s not clear to me how elimination is compatible with lifting restrictions at all - those are contradictory.
“The Scottish Government’s roadmap is not a roadman to elimination, it’s a roadmap to cautiously lifting restrictions, which I welcome”.
Prof Woolhouse added that elimination “as a destination” is “not even close” to living life normally, as it would involve “extremely strict border controls indefinitely” with “no obvious exit strategy unless we thought the virus was going to be eliminated from the rest of the world”, and that Scotland would still “suffer regular lockdowns” regardless when there are small incursions of the virus.
There seems to be no prospect of eliminating Covid in the short-term, he said, and in the “medium term” it would “depend very much” on vaccine performance stopping the spread of infection.
He added: “It may be that these vaccines are very good at stopping transmission, in which case we have a prospect of reaching the herd immunity threshold, which would be difficult.”
Current estimates are that Scotland would have to immunise 75 to 80 per cent of its population to reach the threshold where “the virus will not be able to circulate freely”.
His comments come as Ms Sturgeon confirmed that more than 1.5 million jabs have been administered across the country - a third of Scotland’s adult population - in what the First Minister described as a “significant milestone”.
Prof Woolhouse also cast doubt on the idea that English tourists had a major impact on reseeding the virus in Scotland over the summer.
“I heard a lot of voices over last summer saying all these tourists from England were a potential epidemiological threat to those regions,” he said.
“There were no outbreaks of any significance linked to tourists. There was no epidemiological problem in the Highlands and Islands last summer during the tourist season.
“When the sequencing results came in later in the year, there were a small number of lineages of virus that could be linked to England - not necessarily tourists, but they could have been. Six per cent of the total.
“This wasn't where Scotland's viruses were coming from,” he added.
Opposition parties said the comments showed Ms Sturgeon had been twisting the facts to suit her own narrative.
“It is quite clear the SNP have been spinning positive stories in relation to Scotland’s fight against Covid in order to suit their own narrative,” said Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Donald Cameron.
“We need the First Minister to be open and honest about what the virus prevalence has been at all times during the pandemic. Rather than trying to rewrite history about last summer, the SNP Government should listen to the evidence presented by one of their own respected scientific advisers."
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “The professor has punctured the First Minister’s claims about the success of last summer. The truth is that the SNP Government did not use the time last summer to prepare for the second wave.
“We pleaded for more testing, more effective tracing and a more comprehensive quarantine spot checking system but the government’s refusal resulted in a much bigger second wave.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: "We understand how challenging pursuing elimination is but we can strive towards this as a goal – even if we fall short of elimination, our collective efforts will have contributed to suppressing the virus to the lowest possible level.
"Evidence from SAGE on genomic sequencings tells us this is achievable – the data shows that lockdown coincides with the elimination of the majority of community transitions, and that in summer most of the strains of the virus that had been circulating in Scotland were extinguished, with the epidemic being reseeded with strains mainly from travel from across the UK and overseas.
“Professor Woolhouse has been a valuable contributor to the scientific understanding of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as to the Scottish Government Covid-19 Advisory Group."