HOW do you tell if Covid-19 is about to return with a vengeance? It certainly won’t be by mass universal testing, which has virtually ended since the Government started charging for it. Now only the very sick, very prominent or the very cautious get tested. And, of course, the rich.

As a result, the reported case numbers are bunkum, telling the Government next to nothing about the prevalence of the deadly virus. This is just about the first time in recorded history that public authorities have reduced pandemic numbers by the simple expedient of failing to count them!

You can always tell by rule of thumb. How many relatives and friends do you know who are sick? How many footballers, politicians, pop stars or even clinical directors have posted their own test results, revealing breathlessly to their anxious online followers their own medical details?

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Death rates and emergency hospital admissions are of no use. Of course they impact on anxious or grieving loved ones, but they are lagging indicators. By the time you have intensive care and mortuaries overflowing again, the next virus wave will have already peaked.

So how do you tell – and why has Good Morning Scotland of late been full of soothsayers of one discipline or another morosely predicting further trouble ahead?

Well, they rely on the ONS Infection Survey, which is to epidemic watchers what opinion polls are to politicians. Just as Sir John Curtice reads the runes of Ipsos MORI surveys, pandemic predictors such as Jillian Evans, head of health intelligence at NHS Grampian, rely heavily on the ONS data.

The Covid survey is exactly that – a sample survey. Estimates are derived for the home nations by swab and blood samples of households. The targets are to swab-test 15,000 people in Scotland per week and carry out 12,000 blood tests a month.

That is how, in the latest data, the ONS estimate that in the week to June 10, 176,900 people in Scotland had Covid-19 at any given time. It also detects the distribution of the infection among the various Omicron variants. By this measure, Covid is now once again on the rise in Scotland.

A variety of factors will influence the course of the new wave. This week’s rail strikes will act as a virus breaker, certainly more influential than the current public health measures, where the hoi polloi have just stopped listening. Equally, the disgraceful overcrowding at understaffed airports, is a guaranteed super-spreader of whatever level of infection is out there. Again, a frustrated and sun-starved public have just stopped listening to warnings about mask wearing in public and/or crowded places.

But listen they should, because as depressing as it is to report, we are not out of the woods. Far from being the clumsy slow-to-adapt virus widely predicted at the start of the pandemic, this coronavirus has, in reality, been devious and adept at navigating the natural selection process, which allows wave after wave of variants. It is entirely possible that we shall see the emergence of a new variant more severe and with more immune escape than Omicron. If so, then all bets are off.

In addition, perhaps as many as 10% of sufferers have been left significantly debilitated with “long Covid”, with the impact on health and welfare being such that the Scotland which will finally emerge from the pandemic, will have hundreds of thousands people sicker than the Scotland which blundered into it in 2020.

So what usefully is to be done? Apart from anything else, it might aid the cause of independence – if the Scottish Government were right now to demonstrate a distinctive and successful policy to combat the greatest health challenge of our generation.

First and foremost, gear up the vaccination programme – which has slowed to a trickle by restricting the double booster to the over 75s. It makes no sense for the Health Secretary to be pleading this week with the elderly to come forward in greater numbers, while simultaneously denying many over 50s their extra jag – despite in most cases it being well over six months since booster numero uno.

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Secondly, vaccinate in the schools. Now that the vaccine has been recommended for youngsters, there is no reason not to apply it in, what a century of experience of Scottish vaccination tells us, is by far the most effective way; classroom by classroom.

It would be irresponsible not to fully protect the kids and cut off this known vector of infection long before the onset of another Covid winter.

Lastly, and most controversially, issue vitamin D supplements. The NHS seems reluctant to prescribe the new expensive anti-virals to anything but the most serious of cases. The medical science jury is out on whether vitamin D significantly helps with Covid among healthy adults, but the jury is in that it certainly helps those with a vitamin D deficiency (of which Scotland has many) to resist viruses and probably reduces the longevity of respiratory tract infections. Vitamin D supplements are harmless, cheap as chips and may just have a measurable beneficial health impact for Scotland.

It is time to demonstrate that we have the ability to develop simple – but distinctively Scottish – initiatives to further combat this virus and to deploy them with flair and confidence. And even in high summer, we should introduce them now. Because one thing is indeed certain and beyond dispute – winter is coming.