Al Jazeera spoke to Dr Abdullatif Al Khal, the chair of the National Health Strategic Group on COVID-19 and head of Infectious Diseases at Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) on the reason behind the spike and the authorities’ strategies to minimise the effects of the second wave.
Al Jazeera: Qatar witnessed a surge in cases in February and a steeper one in March. The numbers kept rising after that. What is the reason behind the spike?
Abdullatif Al Khal: Like many countries around the world, we are now experiencing another wave of the virus.
The increase has been driven by the spread of the UK and South Africa strains. The UK variant has been circulating in the community since March. Despite our strict quarantine policy that is in place for all travellers, the South Africa variant made its way into the community at the start of April.
Both these strains are more infectious and cause more severe disease than the original strain and we believe they have had a significant impact on the rise in COVID cases.
Al Jazeera: Stricter restrictions were announced earlier this month. Should that have been done earlier given the spike?
Al Khal: Qatar has acted proactively throughout the entire pandemic. Despite managing to keep the virus under control throughout the last quarter of 2020, Qatar maintained a set of strict policies aimed at preventing a second wave.
Our quarantine policy for anyone entering Qatar has been one of the strictest of its kind in the world and was proven effective at delaying the introduction of new variants into Qatar at a time when many countries around the world were being affected by these new strains. Additionally, we continued to keep in place preventive measures to prevent the virus from spreading.
A key principle of our COVID-19 strategy remains ensuring we are proactive. At the start of the year, as we saw the number of new daily cases begin to rise steadily, we acted quickly to introduce further restrictions at the beginning of February. Once we identified the UK variant, we moved quickly to escalate the restrictions. The latest development in this pandemic of the circulation of the South African variant at the start of April meant we once again moved quickly to further increase the restrictions.
Al Jazeera: There have been calls for another lockdown. Is Qatar heading towards something similar to the one witnessed last year?
Al Khal: The latest set of restrictions implemented on April 9 were the third set of new restrictions to be introduced this year. While economic factors are important, these decisions are always made with the health of the population as the priority.
When announced, we committed to the latest restrictions for a period of at least three weeks. We are now 18 days into the restrictions and we continue to closely monitor the data to see the impact of the restrictions.
While it is too early to make firm predictions, the data shows that the hospital admission rates have levelled off and even seen a slight decline in the past few days. This is very encouraging and the first indication that the combination of restrictions as well as vaccination rollout is working to interrupt the spread of the virus.
However, should the data show signs of rising numbers of cases again then we would not hesitate to increase the restrictions further.
Al Jazeera: COVID cases within children are rising now. How worrying is that and is that as a result of schools being kept open?
Al Khal: It is clear that the South African and UK variants are affecting people of a younger age than the original strain. It is very worrying when children are affected by the virus, but to date we have seen a very low proportion of children become severely sick due to COVID-19. Our policy on schools has always been very strict – even when cases remained low throughout the last quarter of 2020, schools operated with a blended learning system.
This ensured reduced class sizes in schools and supported the implementation of preventive measures. All teachers, administrative staff and almost all children are required to wear masks, while social distancing is maintained and ‘Ehteraz’ [official contact-tracing app] and temperature checks are done on entry to school grounds, with schools implementing a bubble system where classes don’t mix with one another.
We have also implemented a strict quarantine policy for all confirmed and suspected cases – children and teachers. Additionally, we prioritised the vaccination of teachers and school staff and have a very high percentage of vaccination coverage within this group.
Al Jazeera: Overall, has Qatar been successful at containing the cases and deaths compared to the rest of the world?
Al Khal: The entire healthcare sector has played an important role in Qatar’s comprehensive measures to protect its population from COVID-19. The three key focus areas of our strategy have been healthcare capacity expansion, proactive public health strategy and protecting the most vulnerable population.
We significantly expanded our hospital capacity from 2,250 beds before the pandemic to more than 3,500 hospital beds at present.
This is in addition to several thousand isolation beds for people who are infected with COVID-19 coronavirus but are not sick to be in acute care setting.
Our proactive public health measures including testing and tracing strategy enabled us to rapidly identify positive cases and ensure they were provided with the medical care they need at an early stage, before their symptoms worsen.
A vital factor in maintaining a low death rate has been the way in which we have protected the most vulnerable members of our society.
Additionally, we delivered targeted outreach and education programs for these risk groups to ensure they were aware of the actions to take to keep themselves safe during the pandemic.
Al Jazeera: Are we witnessing COVID fatigue on the streets of Qatar? How difficult is it to make residents realise the need to adhere to safety regulations and follow guidelines in these tough times?
Al Khal: People in Qatar and around the world have been living under the threat of COVID-19 for more than 14 months and by and large the community in Qatar has acted very responsibly. Since the start of the pandemic we have consistently issued information and advice on how to people can protect themselves and others from the virus.
The successful suppression of the first wave of the virus in 2020 was a combined effort of the government measures and the public’s adherence to following them.
The rollout of the vaccine has shown that people fully understand the importance of becoming protected from the virus and that the vaccines are the best way in which we will beat this pandemic, but the best results are achieved when vaccines are combined with adherence to the standard preventive measures.
The vaccination rollout has been overwhelmingly received by the public and we are certainly not seeing the large degree of vaccine hesitancy that was feared around the world before the rollout.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length