Cases of the 'Indian variant' in Kent have almost quadrupled in a week - but the county's public health chief says she sees “nothing to stop” the final lifting of lockdown on June 21.
Allison Duggal admits the emergence of the variant locally is a “concern”, but says its presence is largely concentrated in one district.
Here we take a look at everything you need to know about the strain's presence in Kent and the impact it's having.....
Is the Indian variant spreading across Kent?
Yes, it's gained a foothold and is now thought to be the county's dominant strain.
Latest figures show potential cases in Kent have almost quadrupled from 29 in a week to 105.
To track the variant faster, scientists are testing positive samples for something known as an S-gene, which is present in the Indian strain but not the Kent one.
While the presence of the S-gene does not confirm the sample is the Indian variant, tests earlier this month showed that 93% of cases with the S-gene were.
This is why these cases are referred to as "potential" variant cases.
Where is the Indian strain most prevalent?
Kent's hotspot is undoubtedly Canterbury.
In the week up to May 21 it had 42 S-gene cases - 30 more than the week before and the most in the south east.
Kent's interim public health director Dr Duggal said: "In Canterbury, certainly, we're seeing more Covid activity and 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 do have cases across Kent but at the moment it's Canterbury we’re interested in.
“We just want to get on top of this and try to make sure that we're not seeing a lot of transmission.”
Elsewhere in the county, there were 11 S-gene cases in Maidstone and nine each in both Ashford and Tunbridge Wells.
Tests have shown that 78% of positive Covid samples analysed in Kent currently contain the S-gene, suggesting the Indian strain is now the county's dominant variant.
Who is contracting Covid in Kent?
Primarily it's the county's younger population.
Figures show that more than a quarter of new cases in Kent are being seen in those aged 15 to 24, while just 5% are in the over-60s.
This will reassure public health chiefs, as younger people are far less likely to fall seriously ill with the virus and be hospitalised.
Why are the majority of new cases in younger people?
There are a number of probable factors, including mixing in schools, universities and socially, but prioritising older people in the vaccine roll-out has undoubtedly played a part.
Younger people are much less likely to have been fully vaccinated, or even had a first dose, 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.
These areas are a hotspot for students, given their proximity to the University of Kent.
All three are in the bottom 10 in Kent (out of 220 areas) for the number of people fully vaccinated, with fewer than 30% of adults having had two doses.
This compares to 91% for Northfleet South in Gravesham, which tops the table - but the numbers are driven largely by age demographics.
So it's mainly students catching the virus now?
We only know the age and home district of those contracting Covid, and not their gender or occupation.
In Kent, most cases are being seen in those aged 10 to 19, while people in their 20s and 30s account for 37% of positive tests.
But Dr Duggal says it's unfair for anyone to blame a particular group for recent spikes.
“I don't think it's going to be due to students to be honest,” she said.
“I mean, everybody is starting to come out of lockdown and we're on that road map.
“Everybody is starting to be able to do new things. There was always a risk that when that happened we would see some increases.
“With the introduction of a variant there is an element of chance and I think it would be absolutely wrong of me to suggest that one particular group has caused [the increase].”
Are we seeing more people in hospitals?
Yes, but only slightly, and the numbers are still very small.
On May 25, there were eight Covid patients across Kent and Medway - three more than the week before.
This compares to the peak of the virus on January 4, when there were 1,218 people with coronavirus in our hospitals.
Crucially, no patients were on a ventilator on May 25.
It is also important to note that a Covid patient is someone who is in hospital and has tested positive for the virus - not necessarily someone being treated because of it.
Dr Duggal said: “We're not seeing any major changes to our rates across Kent of actual Covid, or in terms of our admissions to hospital with Covid, or indeed deaths with Covid.
“We are very much on the other side of the epidemic at the moment."
Where are the most Covid patients?
East Kent now has five people in its hospitals with Covid - up from one the week before.
This correlates with Canterbury having the highest number of cases, but details on the age of patients and where they live is not published.
Medway has actually seen its Covid patients halve from four to two, while there is just one patient in Dartford and Gravesham, and none in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells.
Health chiefs will be watching patient numbers very closely in the coming weeks, as they will give the clearest indication of the impact of any potential third wave.
Are Kent's Covid rates going up?
The county's infection rate as a whole is rising ever so slightly, but is still very, very low.
In the week up to May 29 there were 190 new cases in Kent, giving us a rate of 12 per week for every 100,000 people - less than half the national average of 25.7.
For context, at the peak of the pandemic in January there were 13,745 new cases in a week and our rate was 869.
While Canterbury - at 26.6 - has Kent's highest infection rate, it is one of four districts to actually record a drop in cases over the most recent week.
Of the other nine, Dover, Dartford, Medway, and Folkestone and Hythe have seen their rates more than double - but they remain incredibly low.
Are more people dying in Kent?
No. There hasn't been a Covid death recorded in Kent since May 8, which was one of two this month.
In January there were 1,456 across the county.
It's important to note, however, that any increase in Covid deaths would typically only be seen three or more weeks after a spike in cases.
Are vaccinated people being admitted to hospital with Covid?
Local figures for Kent aren’t published by the NHS, but the head of NHS Providers says "very, very few" Covid patients in hospital in England have received two coronavirus jabs - showing the vaccines provide "very high" levels of protection.
Chris Hopson said patients now tend to be younger, and therefore there's less need for critical care.
In Bolton - where the Indian variant has spread rapidly - health bosses say very few patients had receive two vaccine doses before they were admitted.
Dr Helen Wall, who is responsible for the vaccine programme in Bolton, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: "There are literally a handful of people who’ve been double-vaccinated, and some of those will have been double-vaccinated and only had the second vaccine recently and, as we know, it takes two to three weeks for that second dose to give you the full protection.”
She added that there are “significant numbers of 30- and 40-year-olds” going into hospital in Bolton.
“In terms of how ill they’re getting, I think the vaccine definitely seems to be working," she said.
"We are not seeing, certainly not many people as sick as we would have done pre-vaccine. Certainly the picture in hospital is much better to previous times when we’ve been at this position.”
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.
NHS England chief Simon Stevens says: “If you do one thing this bank holiday weekend, book your lifesaving jab and crucially, if you’re contacted by the NHS to do so, bring forward your second dose of vital protection.”
How do Kent's Indian strain numbers compare to the rest of England?
Just Canterbury (18th) and Maidstone (49th) appear in the country's top 50 districts for new S-gene cases.
Top of the table is Bolton, which had a staggering 1,038 cases in a week - almost three times as many as second-placed Blackburn with Darwen, with 366.
Canterbury's 42 cases are higher than anywhere else in the south east.
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 Sunday Times is this morning reporting a government adviser involved in assessing the data as saying: "If I was to call it now, I’d say Step 4 is highly likely to be delayed.”
Others are describing the date being put back as "50-50".
The government will wait for the latest data on June 14 before deciding whether to proceed with lifting England’s lockdown the following week.
Asked whether the remaining restrictions could be eased if cases were still increasing, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show: “What I’m saying to you is we have to be cautious. We have to look at the data and share it with the country.
“Are we still vaccinating at scale? Big tick. Are the vaccines working? Yes.
“But are infection rates too high for us to then not be able to proceed because there are too many people getting into hospital? I don’t know the answer to it.
“But we will know it hopefully on the 14th, a few more weeks.”
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."
What does Kent's public health chief think?
Asked if so called 'Freedom Day' should be put back, Allison Duggal said: "That's a very difficult question. It's a very political question, of course.
“As a public health professional I'm very aware of the fact we need a good economy to make sure that people can have good health and wellbeing across the population, so I don't envy the politicians with this.
“I do think that as it stands, with the fact that we can go and investigate where we have clusters and we have such widespread testing, I think that at the moment I can see nothing to stop the road map as it is
"But as I said, that is for central government to decide, not myself."