Concern was raised this week after World Health Organization (WHO) data showed that of the 10 European locations with the highest seven-day Covid-19 infection rates five were in Scotland.
Speaking on BBC Politics Live on Tuesday, SNP MP David Linden claimed one of the reasons the Covid-19 Delta variant had “seeded” in densely populated areas such as Dundee and Glasgow, is that there is less herd immunity in these areas than in other parts of the UK.
Ferret Fact Service looked at the claim and found it Mostly True.
At the time the figures were published, Tayside had the highest rate in Europe, with 661 cases per 100,000 people. It was followed in second place by Lothian, with 567 per 100,000. Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Fife and Grampian also featured in the top 10.
Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Annie Wells said the situation was “shocking and deeply concerning”.
The World Health Organisation figures have been updated since it was first reported that Scotland featured heavily at the top of the so-called ‘Covid-19 hotspot’ league table.
In the latest data, North East England topped the table with a seven-day incidence rate of 702 per 100,000, with Tayside in second place at 636. Cyprus was third highest with 540, followed by Lothian (527), Nur-Sultan City in Kazakhstan (509) and Greater Glasgow and Clyde (457).
Scottish figures are provided to the WHO by Public Health Scotland, which calculates the incidence rate on a seven-day rolling basis based on the number of new infections that are recorded.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) provides regular updates on antibody and vaccination data for each of the UK nations.
These figures are estimates based on surveys conducted in partnership with the University of Oxford, University of Manchester, Public Health England and the Wellcome Trust.
The ONS’s latest study was released on 7 July. It found that among younger age groups, where the majority of people are either not yet eligible to be vaccinated or have had just one jab, fewer people in Scotland tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK.
In the 16 to 24 age group, for example, just 25.1 per cent of people had received one jab in Scotland compared to 31.6 per cent in England, 30.6 per cent in Wales and 44.3 per cent in Northern Ireland.
In Scotland, 46.9 per cent of people in that age group had Covid-19 antibodies compared with 59.7 per cent in England, 66.4 per cent in Wales and 41.6 per cent in Northern Ireland.
Similarly, in the 25 to 34 age group, 75 per cent of Scottish people had received one vaccination compared with 79.6 per cent in England, 77 per cent in Wales and 75.8 per cent in Northern Ireland.
The proportion of Scottish people testing positive for antibodies in that group was 75.7 per cent while in England it was 81.1 per cent, in Wales it was 88.9 per cent and in Northern Ireland it was 78.2 per cent.
People will test positive for antibodies either because they have been vaccinated or because they have been previously infected with Covid-19.
According to the WHO, that is how population immunity is established. It defines population immunity, otherwise known as herd immunity, as the “indirect protection from an infectious disease that happens when a population is immune either through vaccination or immunity developed through previous infection”. Natural herd immunity is developed through previous infection.
In its report the ONS stresses its figures are based on estimates and notes that the number of people sampled in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is low. “This means there is a higher degree of uncertainty in estimates for these nations when our analysis splits the sample into smaller groups, for example age groups,” it says.
Nevertheless, it says the differing antibody figures across the four nations “could be explained by different historical trends in Covid-19 infection rates and the approaches to vaccine distribution in different nations”.
Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, told Ferret Fact Service Linden’s comment was accurate, and the fact that antibody levels appear to be lower among Scottish people who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, or who have only been partially vaccinated, “suggests fewer people here had Covid-19 in the past”.
Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly True
If proportionally fewer people in Scotland have had Covid-19 in the past than elsewhere in the UK then natural herd immunity – immunity developed without the use of a vaccine, in other words – will be lower here too. Official figures appear to suggest that is the case, but they are based on estimates and may not be entirely accurate. This is likely one of the reasons for the increase in cases, alongside the spread of the Delta variant itself.
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Photo thanks to iStock/jimmcdowall