Published: 12:28, 16 October 2020
| Updated: 13:18, 16 October 2020
As Covid-19 cases in Kent more than doubled last month, the county's public health director warns lockdowns could be imposed on individual districts.
In Canterbury , where the infection rate has risen above 50 for the first time since April, one GP has branded the rise “concerning” and believes a short lockdown period could provide local health services with a key chance to regroup.
But a head teacher in the city says he is keen to see such measures avoided, fearing it would be a “poor” move for schools.
Outbreaks have been reported at universities, schools and care homes, with 83 new cases recorded in the week up to October 8 - 10 times more than at the start of September.
The district’s infection rate - at 50.2 cases per 100,000 people - remains way below the UK average of 177.4.
It is, however, rising at a similar pace, with a 69% increase seen in the last week alone.
Kent’s public health director, Andrew Scott-Clark, says mini-lockdowns could be imposed on districts - rather than at a county level - if cases rise too high.
Dr John Ribchester, GP and senior and executive partner at Whitstable Medical Practice, spoke in favour of a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown - an idea that has been floated by health chiefs and Labour leader Keir Starmer .
Dr Ribchester says that while his practice has only seen a slight rise in cases, the district-wide increase “is concerning”.
His chief concern is that a spike in winter flu cases combined with the second wave of Covid-19 could create “the perfect storm” for local health services.
“A circuit breaker lockdown could bring about a pause in the increase, which would give health and social services a chance to regroup,” he said.
“It would give us two weeks’ more opportunity to do winter flu immunisations.
“As far as I’m aware, the main growth is in late teenagers and people in their 20s, but of course they are infecting older people as well who are much more vulnerable. That is the concern.”
Asked if he feels the current local restrictions go far enough, he said: “My gut reaction is no, they don’t.
“But if people did follow the restrictions that are in place at the moment - the rule of six, social distancing, rigorous use of face masks - that would be a good start.”
Mr Scott-Clark says given the county’s infection rate - which stood at 49.3 on October 8 - it was unsurprising to see Kent avoid tighter restrictions.
“We know rates are relatively low across Kent and Medway, but we are seeing a slow growth of cases,” he said at a briefing on Tuesday. “It means people need to maintain their social distances, maintain the rule of six and wear masks where appropriate in public, wash hands frequently and to be very careful.
“[Kent’s rate isn’t] anywhere near the national average, but we are keeping a very close eye on the situation.”
While Canterbury’s infection rate had dropped to as low as 1.8 at the end of August, the spike seen since is showing no sign of slowing down.
It has prompted Canterbury MP Rosie Duffield to also back the idea of a temporary lockdown.
"Given the accelerating rate of infection here, I believe strongly a short 'circuit-breaker' lockdown to coincide with schools' half term would save lives in our area, whilst setting the progress of the virus back at least a month as we head into the difficult winter months," she said.
"To truly back our NHS and ensure that communities can cope, we need to be proactive. We can't be slow to make decisions or the cost will be too high to tally."
The reopening of schools and return of students to the city is seen as a major factor in the rise in cases, with 55 recorded at Canterbury’s two main universities since the start of the academic year.
Ken Moffat, headmaster of Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, says he feels the spike was “inevitable”.
“We have almost as many students as any city in Britain, so once they come back infection rates are going to go through the roof,” he said.
He said his school has not seen any Covid-19 cases since term began last month and that student attendance is currently above average.
“But of course we’re all worried that something may happen and we’ll have to send kids home or close schools, so every day is a bonus at the moment,” he said.
Asked about the impact a “circuit breaker” lockdown could have upon schools, he said: “I think 70% of all work that gets done in schools gets done between September and Christmas, when everyone’s fresh.
“So it would be poor. It would be disappointing, and I’d hope to avoid it. If there is, I just hope we’d get adequate notice rather than Mr Williamson [the Education Secretary] telling us next Thursday night that we’ve got to have a two-week half term.”
North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale, whose constituency covers Herne Bay, also criticised calls for a second lockdown.
“It’s all very well for Starmer or anybody else to say ‘have a lockdown, have a short, sharp shock’ but they’re talking about a fortnight and that’s disingenuous,” he said. “A fortnight won’t work. “It can take up to a fortnight for the disease to incubate, so that fortnight would quickly move into three weeks, to four weeks, to two months, to three months.”
Hospital patient number falls
Despite new Covid-19 cases in Kent more than doubling last month, the number of coronavirus patients in the county's hospitals actually fell.
On October 1, figures showed nine hospital beds were occupied by people with Covid-19, compared to 15 on September 1.
At the same time, the number of positive tests in the county rose from 361 in August to 886 in September.
The age of those contracting the virus is likely to be a factor in the spike in cases not leading to increased hospital admissions in Kent .
Kent 's public health director says many new cases are being seen in those aged 18 to 34 - a group less likely to be seriously affected by the virus, and therefore less likely to require hospital treatment.
It is unclear if hospital admissions have increased in Kent since October 1, as a regional breakdown is only published once a month.
KentOnline asked East Kent Hospitals how many of its beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients, but was directed to NHS England.
NHS England did not respond to our request for these figures.
It does, however, publish a daily breakdown on Covid-19 deaths at individual hospitals trusts.
Its latest figures show four people died with the virus in Kent's hospitals in the first 12 days of October - just two fewer than in the whole of September.