HAVE recent Covid restrictions "failed to make any meaningful difference" to infections - or are we in a "better position" than we would have been without them?

As so often in the pandemic, opinions are mostly split down political and ideological lines.

On the one hand, whether you live in "party on England" or "stay at home Scotland", the Omicron wave looks to have peaked with daily case numbers and even hospital admissions now looking to be in decline.

Furthermore, the latest official virus rates show little divergence between the two nations: 1,647 per 100,000 in Scotland compared to 1,695 per 100,000 in England over the seven days to January 8.

HeraldScotland: Source: UK GovernmentSource: UK Government

And while England adopted Plan B - face coverings, vaccine passports, and working-from-home - Scotland, which already had all these measures in place, went further by implementing table service in pubs, physical distancing in restaurants, nightclub closures, and saw everything from pantomimes to football matches called off by strict limits on attendance.

READ MORE: Puzzle over latest data showing Covid infection rates lowest in unvaccinated Scots

The tone of the Holyrood and Westminster governments was also markedly different. While Nicola Sturgeon urged the public to postpone Christmas parties and curtail socialising, Boris Johnson insisted that school nativities and office shindigs should go ahead (given Downing Street's appetite for lockdown-breaking revelry, is it any wonder the Prime Minister was reluctant to censure them?)

Yet, in spite of all those differences, Scotland and England have finished up in the same place. Or have they?

Firstly, it depends what we mean by "cases".

HeraldScotland:

 

HeraldScotland: Cases have been falling in England and Scotland since the beginning of the year, based on official daily data NB: England daily average up to January 5; Scotland daily average up to January 10Cases have been falling in England and Scotland since the beginning of the year, based on official daily data NB: England daily average up to January 5; Scotland daily average up to January 10

Based on positive tests reported through the NHS and Lighthouse laboratories, cases have been falling in both Scotland and England since the beginning of January.

But these figures - which are also used to produce the official 'rate per 100,000' estimates - are mostly based on people proactively going for testing, either because they had symptoms or (prior to recent changes) because they had tested positive on a lateral flow device.

That can be skewed by everything from the availability of test slots, to asymptomatic infected people failing to get tested.

The Office for National Statistics household surveillance project is therefore a more accurate gauge of the virus' genuine prevalence in the community.

READ MORE: No baby deaths among vaccinated mothers who caught Covid in pregnancy

According to it, England went from one in 60 people infected in the week ending November 27 to one in 15 by the week ending December 31 - a four-fold rise in prevalence. In the week ending January 7, the estimate was unchanged at one in 15, suggesting that infections are not actually in decline quite yet.

In Scotland, virus prevalence increased three-fold over the same period - from one in 65 to one in 20 in the weeks ending December 31 and January 7.

In fact, Scottish Government modelling - which takes into account undetected and asymptomatic infections - actually projects that Scotland's infections will finally peak today: January 15.

HeraldScotland: Source: 'Modelling the Epidemic', Scottish GovernmentSource: 'Modelling the Epidemic', Scottish Government

On that basis then, infections spread faster and were 25 per cent more common in England than Scotland by the end of December and beginning of January.

Similar patterns emerge when hospital admissions and deaths are compared.

Between December 1 and January 8, a total of 3,744 Covid patients were admitted to hospital in Scotland out of a population of 5.47 million: a rate of 68.4 per 100,000.

In England, with a population of 55.6m, there were 48,528 Covid admissions: a rate of 85.8 per 100,000.

On Covid deaths - 4,845 in England from December 1 to January 11, and 322 in Scotland - the rates were 8.6 and 5.9 per 100,000 respectively.

In other words, the recent Covid hospital admission rate has been 25% higher in England than Scotland, and the death rate 46% higher.

HeraldScotland:

HeraldScotland: Hospital admissions both now appear to be levelling off in Scotland and England Hospital admissions both now appear to be levelling off in Scotland and England

Of course, not all Covid hospital admissions and deaths are "because of" Covid (though a majority are), but surely all of the above is proof than Scotland's restrictions saved lives, eased pressure on hospitals, and led to less infection-related disruption from staff absences?

Again, it is probably not so clear-cut.

It is very difficult to unpick how much the better position in Scotland is down to the Government's "protective measures" per se, and how much would have come about anyway through voluntary behaviour changes and higher uptake of vaccines and boosters north of the border.

HeraldScotland: Scotland has had higher booster coverage than England, although Northern Ireland - which has the lowest of the UK nations - although has an infection rate of one in 20, according to the ONSScotland has had higher booster coverage than England, although Northern Ireland - which has the lowest of the UK nations - although has an infection rate of one in 20, according to the ONS

In Scotland, booster coverage across the total population climbed from 26% on November 22, before Omicron, to 58% by January 13; in England, it went from 23% to 53% over the same time.

In Scotland, the variant also took hold initially in more affluent areas where vaccine uptake is higher; in England it was seeded in London, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

It is also worth noting that the more confident tones of UK ministers clashed with messages of caution from government scientists such as Jenny Harries and Chris Whitty: regardless of official advice, the English public - worried about another ruined Christmas - shunned pubs and restaurants en masse, and many employers also chose to put their Christmas do's on ice.

Notably though, Northern Ireland and Wales - which adopted much the same restrictions as Scotland on events, nightclubs, and hospitality - have also ended up with virus rates of one in 20.

READ MORE: Restrictions on outdoor events lifted as Omicron wave 'turns a corner'

So, perhaps the restrictions - on top of behaviour changes and vaccines - were the thing that slowed the virus in the rest of the UK compared to England.

The harder question is whether they are "proportionate": is the risk from the virus and the benefit of the restrictions still enough to balance out their harms to the economy and mental health? Arguably, isolation policies are now harming the NHS as much as the demands of dealing with sick Covid patients.

The benefit-to-harm judgments have never been more polarised.