Published: 06:00, 03 June 2021
| Updated: 10:18, 03 June 2021
The infection rate in a district hit by the so-called 'Indian variant' has surprisingly fallen - with just one Covid patient now in hospital in the whole of east Kent.
Surge testing has been rolled out in Canterbury this week after concerns over a rise in the Covid-19 strain, which is believed to be more transmissible than other variants.
Yet new figures show the district's infection rate has dropped by 23%, while the number of Covid patients in east Kent's hospitals fell from five to one.
Meanwhile, the Canterbury district has not seen any Covid-related deaths for two months.
Kent's interim director of public health, Dr Allison Duggal, says the city's testing blitz is part of a "highly precautionary approach" after a number of Indian strain cases were identified in the area, adding: "We don't want to take anything for granted."
But while the variant has become the dominant strain in the area, the district's s overall Covid infection rate is actually dropping.
Although Canterbury - at 26 weekly cases per 100,000 people - has Kent's second-highest infection rate, it recorded a 23% fall in cases in the week ending May 28.
Dr Allison Duggal discusses the roll-out of surge testing in Canterbury
Across the county, cases appear to be rising ever so slightly, but the rate is still very, very low.
In the week up to May 28 there were 231 new cases in Kent, giving a rate of 14.6 per week for every 100,000 people - less than half the national average of 30.9. At the peak of the pandemic in January there were 13,745 new cases in a week and Kent's rate was 869.
But Dr Duggal says Canterbury' has "a number of little clusters" of the Indian variant, and that the surge testing is particularly aimed at identifying anyone with the strain who does not have symptoms.
"We want to make sure that if somebody's asymptomatic and has the variant then they know about it and can take appropriate action," she said. "That way we can stop the spread."
The two-week enhanced testing programme was rolled out in Canterbury on Monday.
Health officials are urging anyone living, working or studying in the CT1 or CT2 7 postcode areas - who is over the age of 12 and does not have Covid-19 symptoms - to get a PCR test at one of five new mobile testing sites.
The units are located at the city's three park and rides, in New Dover Road, Wincheap and Sturry Road; and at Darwin College car park and Keynes College car park at the University of Kent.
They are open for walk-in appointments only from 9am until 7pm, seven days a week until June 15. Appointments cannot be booked.
Today, an enhanced testing scheme was also rolled out in Maidstone.
Why is the 'Indian strain' a concern?
The Covid-19 variant first detected in India - also known as the 'Indian' or 'Delta' variant - is thought to be more transmissible than other strains of the virus.
Having gained a foothold, it is now thought to be Kent's dominant strain, and certainly appears to be so in Canterbury.
Dr Duggal says 30 'Indian strain' cases were identified in the district last week, while in the week to May 21 there were 42 cases in which the S-gene was detected, which is highly indicative of the Delta variant.
She said: "In Canterbury, we are seeing some clusters of the new variant, so it is a concern. We know that it can transmit a little bit more easily.
“We just want to get on top of this and try to make sure that we're not seeing a lot of transmission.”
Is the vaccine effective against the Indian variant?
Two weeks ago, Public Health England announced the results of a study showing two doses of the Pfizer vaccine have an 88% efficacy against symptomatic disease, while two doses of AstraZeneca have a 60% success rate. After one jab, both are just 33% effective.
This has left the government racing to double-vaccinate as many people as possible, setting a target of giving two doses to all over-50s by June 21.
Who is contracting Covid?
Primarily, it's the younger population.
Figures show that 87% of new Covid cases in Canterbury are being seen in those aged below 35, while in the last week just one case has been reported among the over-60s.
The majority of infections are being seen in the 20 to 24 age group, accounting for 39% of all the district's new cases.
This will reassure public health chiefs, as younger people are far less likely to fall seriously ill with the virus and be hospitalised.
As of Tuesday, there was just one person in hospital with Covid-19 in east Kent - down from five the previous week.
Meanwhile, Canterbury has seen no Covid-related deaths since April 3.
Why are the majority of new cases in younger people?
Prioritising older people in the vaccine roll-out has undoubtedly played a part.
Younger people are much less likely to have been vaccinated, which is significant because the vaccine reduces the risk of transmission and symptomatic illness.
The recent Covid spikes have been seen in central Canterbury, concentrated largely in Canterbury St Stephen’s, Canterbury Central and Westgate, and Blean Forest, Chartham Hatch and University - all hotspots for students, given their proximity to the city's three universities.
Mixing of young people at schools, universities, and socially is likely to be playing a part in transmission of the virus - with Indian variant cases reported at both the University of Kent and The King's School.
Meanwhile, on Friday, police were called to a mass gathering of about 100 young people, who met in Whitstable Road for a house party that flouted social restrictions.
Neighbours called 101 due to concerns about the impact the party could have upon the spread of Covid-19.
One resident said: "I get it that they want to have fun, but with the Indian variant in Canterbury, they are jeopardising the end of lockdown for everyone."
Responding to this incident, Dr Duggal said: "I was young once. I understand why people want to be out and about. They want to see their friends and want life to go back to normal.
"But we're not quite there yet, so what I would say is it's really important younger people get themselves tested.
"I'd urge people to be sensible, thinking about not going to huge house parties and mingling with everybody.
"We can get on top of this and life will start to return to normal. It's just this next hurdle to get over."
Will the spread of the Indian strain delay lockdown being fully lifted on June 21?
It appears to be very much up in the air.
The government will wait for the latest data on June 14 before deciding whether to proceed with lifting England’s lockdown the following week.
Some scientists believe the reopening date should be delayed until more people are fully vaccinated, even if all over-50s are double jabbed by June 21.
This is because those receiving their second dose on this date will not be full protected until three weeks later.
Prof Andrew Hayward, a member of the Sage advisory group, said: "I think there is a good argument for caution until such time as we've got a much higher proportion of the population double vaccinated."
But Kent's public health chief, Allison Duggal said on Tuesday: "I'm still hopeful that we'll get to June 21 and we'll be OK, and that we'll be able to start lifting the restrictions."
Stressing that any decision on this is down to the government, she added that surge testing in Canterbury will "give us the information we need to make those decisions".
"I will be certainly talking to central government about the results of this testing, and if we feel that it's unwise, it's part of my job that I have to say if it's unwise," she said. "It has to be the right time for us to ease restrictions.
"But at the moment, we don't have anything that says we shouldn't."