WE are staggering to the end of 2021, the second year of a pandemic which in terms of the number of deaths it has caused is now approaching the great “Spanish flu” which assailed a battered world that had only just come through the horrors and slaughter of the First World War.

That pandemic, which lasted from early 1918 until late 1920, is widely believed to have taken between 25 million to 50 million lives worldwide. Johns Hopkins University in the USA places the total number of confirmed deaths from Covid-19 at more than five million, but in many countries, deaths and case numbers are woefully under-reported. One study reported in the Economist and updated at the end of November places the true global death toll in the 17.4 million to 20.3 million range.

The coronavirus which causes Covid-19 is literally a shapeshifting enemy. It mutates frequently. Mutations arise when there is an error in the copying process. The virus hijacks the cells of the body it infects and forces them to create copies of itself which then go on to infect other cells in the body and the cycle keeps repeating itself until either the infected person’s immune system kills off the virus or the infected person succumbs to the disease. During the course of a typical infection, billions of copies of the virus are produced. Mostly these copies are identical, but sometimes a mistake is made in the copying process and a section of the DNA in the virus is copied incorrectly.

Even if only a tiny percentage of copies contain errors, this still means that a significant number of faulty copies of the virus – or mutations – will be produced during the course of a typical infection. Multiply this by the millions of cases of infection around the globe and you quickly realise that it is statistically highly likely that a large number of mutated copies of the virus are going to arise.

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The vast majority of these mutated copies have no functional significance in how the virusgoes about its business of hijacking cells in the body or transmitting itself from one infected person to another. Others actually make it harder for the virus to force body cells to reproduce itself or to transmit itself from one host to another. These mutations quickly die out.

However, a tiny minority of mutated copies of the virus are more efficient at forcing cells in the body to create more copies of the virus or are better at being transmitted from one infected person to another. The most alarming of all are those mutations which are better at evading the body’s natural defence mechanisms in the immune system, or the antibodies created by vaccines, or which cause more serious disease.

The Delta variant of the virus which was first identified in India spread quickly and soon became the dominant strain worldwide because it contained mutations which made it more efficient at transmitting itself from one infected person to another. However, thankfully, it did not cause more serious disease and did not evade the vaccine.

We are now facing what seems to be the rapid spread of a new mutation, Omicron, first identified in southern Africa. Scientists are concerned that this new variant contains mutations which may make it more efficient at transmitting itself from one person to another.

It is not known whether it will also be more resistant to the vaccines that we currently have, however, it is concerning enough that Boris Johnson was forced to reimpose the requirement in England to wear face coverings in shops and on public transport, a measure which has not gone down well with the right-wing froth merchants of GBeebies, the UK’s own Fox News wannabe. Perhaps they think that being made of gammon gives them natural immunity. They certainly believe it gives them natural immunity from considering the needs of other people and the increased risks faced by the chronically ill or the immuno-compromised.

This new variant has arisen just as the British Government is mired in multiple allegations of corruption and as the Conservatives intensify their attacks on the devolution settlement and the Scottish Parliament and descend ever further into a sleazy authoritarianism. Meanwhile, the damage caused by the Tories’ ideologically driven Brexit and the utter absence of any of the supposed advantages of leaving the EU become ever more apparent. The need for Scottish independence has never been more pressing or urgent.

Preparations for a second Scottish independence referendum have been ramping up. The Scottish Government announced its intention to hold a second independence referendum before the end of 2023 and, during an interview last week, Nicola Sturgeon reiterated her determination to hold the referendum within this timeframe. The National, the SNP and Believe In Scotland jointly produced and distributed one million copies of an eight-page independence special edition of this newspaper, taking the message of independence to almost one half of the households in the country.

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On the Andrew Marr Show on the BBC on Sunday, the First Minister was asked during a largely hostile interview whether the arrival of the new variant would delay plans for another referendum. It is noticeable that Health Secretary Sajid Javid is not grilled in the same way, but then according to the BBC and the British media the pandemic is a uniquely Scottish problem which is all the fault of the SNP.

This is despite the fact that the Observer newspaper revealed on Sunday that the British Government had ignored a senior official’s plan to prepare the UK for the emergence of vaccine-resistant Covid variants.

The First Minister gave the only answer that she could, saying that she didn’t know. No one can predict the future course of the pandemic. Disappointing as this might be to those of us – myself included – who crave some certainty about the date of the second referendum, it was the only honest answer. We want certainty while in the middle of a global pandemic which by its very nature is uncertain.

However, the political imperative for another referendum remains and the First Minister is well aware that it must take place within the term of this Parliament. She knows that if it does not, that would likely spell the end of the SNP as the dominant party in Scottish politics. We are in a critical phase in Scottish, and indeed global history.

As we move into 2022, the coming months will be crucial for Scotland’s future.