THE prevalence of a new more contagious strain of Covid could be declining in Scotland, according to the latest infection survey. 

The latest data from random sampling indicates that the UK variant accounted for 22 per cent of positive tests around the new year period, compared to 38% earlier in December. 

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Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all recorded a decrease in the proportion of infections compatible with the new more transmissible strain, thought to have first emerged in Kent, while England alone saw its share increase from 49% to 61%. 

HeraldScotland: Percentage of positive tests compatible for the new UK variant, from samples taken December 28-January 2 (Source: ONS) Percentage of positive tests compatible for the new UK variant, from samples taken December 28-January 2 (Source: ONS)  

In Northern Ireland, the UK variant - known as B117 or VUI202012/01 (meaning the first 'Variant Under Investigation' in December 2020) - accounted for 50% of positive samples taken between December 14 and 18, but 33% by the period from December 28 to January 2. 

In Wales, the percentage fell from 11% to 5%. 

The results are based on swabs from a random sample of the population who are taking part in the Office for National Statistics' Infection Survey. 

Participants with or without symptoms who are living in the community (rather than hospitals or care homes) provide regular throat and nose swabs as part of the initiative, helping statisiticians to gauge a more accurate picture of how the virus is spreading. 

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An estimated one in three people infected with the virus develop extremely mild or no symptoms, meaning their infections are unlikely to be picked up but they can still spread it.

More recently some samples have been sub-analysed for genetic markers indicative of the UK variant strain, which is believed to have driven the recent surge in cases nationally because it is up to 70% more transmissible. 

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has previously highlighted the ONS figures in briefings to the Scottish Parliament, noting that the variant was accounting for roughly 40% of cases prior to Christmas.

However, the ONS warns that the data "should be treated with caution" due to lower sample sizes in some areas.

The ONS states: "In particular, there are small numbers of positives detected in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland leading to considerable uncertainty surrounding these estimates."

HeraldScotland: Percentage of positive tests compatible for the new UK variant, from samples taken December 14-18 (Source: ONS) Percentage of positive tests compatible for the new UK variant, from samples taken December 14-18 (Source: ONS)

However, the decline was highlighted by a prominent member of the independent SAGE advisory group, the mathematician and professor of operational research at University College London Professor Christina Pagel, as a possible explanation for a drop in cases in Wales. 

The ONS survey estimated that around one in 115 people in Scotland were infected with coronavirus between December 28 and January 2 - based on all circulating strains.

That is up from one in 140 in the previous study period (December 14 to 18), but compares to one in 50 for England; one in 70 in Wales; and one in 200 people in Northern Ireland. 

Daily Scottish Government statistics also suggest cases could have peaked, with a high of 17,762 reported in the week to January 7 and a high of 12.5% test positivity. 

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By January 11 this had fallen steadily to 16,989 (a dip of 4.4%) and average test positivity over the previous seven days of 10.4%. 

Hospital admissions - which lag behind infections by around seven to 10 days - are continuing to climb, but more slowly.

As of January 7 - the most recent date for which figures are available - Scotland was averaging 137.9 admissions for Covid per day. 

This compares to an all-time peak, during wave one, of 184.7 per day as of April 6. 

HeraldScotland: Daily reported cases for Scotland - the seven day average has dipped in recent days Daily reported cases for Scotland - the seven day average has dipped in recent days

HeraldScotland: Hospital admissions are still rising, but may be starting to slowHospital admissions are still rising, but may be starting to slow