New variants of coronavirus likely to emerge but geography of Highlands gives more time for region to prepare, believes NHS Highland director of public health Dr Tim Allison
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He has been the public face of NHS Highland throughout the coronavirus pandemic but Dr Tim Allison has only been director of public health for the past 18 months.
With a regular column in our sister paper the Inverness Courier, as well as public statements, he has been able to get the message across to the public to help them cope and deal with the ongoing situation.
However, one of the biggest challenges in recent weeks has been the emergence of the latest variant of the virus – Omicron.
Dr Allison said: “One thing that Covid has done, is that it keeps surprising us by coming back with new things.
“One thing about the Omicron variant to think about is that it has developed in southern Africa where there is not much vaccination – there are lots of places around the world with low vaccination levels – so I think it would be a bit naive to think that there won’t be any other variants.”
He said the latest variant was very infectious, adding: “That is why it’s here because new variants will only become commonplace if they are more infectious.
“So it’s here and, sadly, it will affect a lot of people and then, like the other variants, it will slowly decline. But we will be faced with probably further Covid over the year.
“It will gradually, as the years go by, become more of something that we need to adapt to. I don’t think we will ever be without Covid totally and we will get new variants.”
Dr Allison said, if he had to predict, he felt we would probably end up with an annual vaccination programme and added: “We will get new variants but I hope that they won’t cause too much illness – but that is all speculation.
“We have seen Covid surprise us an awful lot, I mean it seems like a long time ago but it was only a year ago that we had the Alpha variant, which was the first really significant variant coming along and that was only last Christmas.”
He said hospital admissions due to Covid were currently at a low level and that the number of cases of the Omicron variant were also lower than the level other health boards had.
Dr Allison believes the Highland geography had been an advantage, as well as the fact that the area tended to get Covid waves later.
He said: “NHS Highland is really big, it goes all the way to the borders of Greater Glasgow, so we are getting some Covid cases there.
“We tend to get Covid in the Inverness area and certainly in the Moray Firth earlier than the rest of NHS Highland because more people travel to and from the area to other parts of Scotland and other parts of the UK.
“But, because we are a little bit later, we have got more time to prepare and what is particularly important at the moment is that we have got a bit more time to get more people vaccinated so we can get more people protected against all variants of Covid before it hits us more.”
Preparation for a potential rise in cases over winter has included prioritising services, both in hospital and in primary care and general practice, to get reserve capacity while supporting the most urgent services. He said: “Clearly we need to prioritise the work to tackle Covid.”
He said that the NHS advice to help guard against the spread of Covid was the same as it had been throughout the pandemic – being careful with contacts, being careful with hygiene, trying to avoid crowded places, wearing face coverings and working from home where possible.
In addition, he said that people should make sure they are fully vaccinated and, if they were going to meet at a social gathering, they should take a lateral flow test to reduce the risk of infecting others.
One of the big successes has been the roll out of the vaccination programme but Dr Allison said there had been a “rocky start” for the boosters. He said: “It was a little bit slow and some people were critical.
“I think it was difficult to start with because we mobilised all the resources that we could, certainly in the Highland Council area, including both the board and general practice and I think people were a bit confused because there wasn’t a single message about how people could access vaccination.
“As time has gone on we have got the messaging better, the clinics have become more efficient and we have been able to get through an awful lot of people – it hasn’t been perfect by any means but we have been able to cover a lot of ground.
“We have got the GPs, who are able to, back on board because we have been asked to accelerate the programme. We made really good use of Smithton Church and we are very grateful to them. Now we have got new premises in the old Forestry Commission building and I think it is going pretty well.”
He stressed his gratitude to everyone who had been jagged, with more than 193,000 across NHS Highland receiving three vaccine doses.