Five hospital beds occupied by Covid patients - compared to 108 a year ago

Further coronavirus deaths have been announced at the Queen Elizabeth, James Paget and Norfolk and N

Just five beds at Norfolk hospitals are occupied by Covid patients - Credit: Archant

The number of Norfolk hospital beds occupied by coronavirus patients has fallen from 108 this time last year to just five - but experts warn we must continue to be cautious.

A year ago, the UK was more than two months into its first nationwide lockdown, while now, the nation is a little over three weeks away from the final few restrictions potentially being lifted and life finally returning to a state of normality. 

But a new threat, the spread of the so-called Indian variant elsewhere around the country, has cast doubt on "freedom day", with prime minister Boris Johnson previously admitting England "may need to wait".

Prime minister Boris Johnson has hailed what he says has been a 'truly national effort to beat' the virus that has allowed...

Boris Johnson admitting England "may need to wait" for lockdown restrictions to end - Credit: PA

And Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, said the country may need to adhere to some rules for a longer period than hoped. 

"The June relaxation is still very much up in the air," he added.

"Sometimes I think the prime minister will stick to it, other times I think he will not.

"I think it is probably on the cards that we will have some continuation of social distancing."

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But Prof Hunter, who specialises in the transmission of emerging infectious diseases, highlighted that the present coronavirus situation is markedly different from that of a year ago.

“Case numbers this time last year were going down," he said. "At the moment they are going up, and that is entirely down to the Indian variant.

“However, one difference is we have better testing this time around, so we are picking up more of the cases. 

"With cases, the big difference between now and then is the age distribution. This time last year the median age was about 50, whereas now it is about 30. 

Prof Paul Hunter of the UEA's Norwich medical school. Photo: Bill Smith

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia (UEA) - Credit: Archant © 2013

"It is mainly younger people getting Covid, and fewer older people. The primary driver of that is certainly the vaccine. 

“The biggest issue to worry about is hospitalisations. This time last year you’re looking at 550 per day, compared to 85 to 90 now. It is going up but not that fast.    

“In June and July there will probably be quite a few more cases than last year, but it is looking like we will see less hospitalisations and deaths."

Closer inspection of the Norfolk numbers paints an even clearer picture of how things have changed.

In the seven days up to May 23, just four people were admitted to hospital suffering with coronavirus.

A year ago that figure was 62, including 42 at the NNUH alone.

Testing, as Prof Hunter suggested, has been ramped up significantly, almost quadrupling in the space of 12 months having risen from 6,651 PCR tests last year to 23,536 in the same week-long span. 

The infection rate for the county is up slightly - 13.4 cases per 100,000 people now, compared to 9.5 towards the end of May 2020. 

Sam Carpenter watches as Stuart Bedford carries out the lateral flow test on the new Covid-19 mobile

Covid testing has been ramped up significantly in recent months - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021

It should be noted, however, that increased testing will have played a part in identifying more cases, while the population is currently moving around far more freely than this time last year - including in pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops.

Many venues were allowed to reopen their indoor spaces from the beginning of last week, although experts say any impact on infections cannot be judged for a few more days.

Mobility data published by Google shows that, in the seven days up to May 23, the number of people visiting retail or recreation venues in Norfolk was down 11pc on pre-Covid levels. 

Nevertheless, for the same period in 2020, similar activity was down a massive 65pc.

Nicola Ready, owner of clothing shop Flories in Diss, was pleased to see customers returning. Pictur

Nicola Ready, who owns Flories in Diss - Credit: Archant

Nicola Ready's Diss clothing store, Flories, was among those shut this time last year, but she believes shoppers have returned with renewed vigour. 

“Having to close was crushing but, at the same time, I knew it was the right thing to do," she said. “It was obviously a worrying time, though, from a business point of view. 

"The town seems quite busy now and there is a nice atmosphere. People seem to be shopping more locally and they are simply pleased to be out.  

"There are still people saying it is their first trip out, so some are clearly waiting a while until they feel safe.” 

Having taken over The Swan in East Harling just a few months prior to the first lockdown, Jessica and David Taylor also found themselves in a worrying situation.

“Being told to shut was heartbreaking," said Mrs Taylor. "I thought ‘is this the end of pubs?’ I wondered if I would ever pull a pint again. 

“It’s our regulars who really suffered - especially single, older people. There are so many people who rely on us.

"People who are not pubgoers would not understand, but we are a very close-knit community."

There was, however, a silver lining.

Jessica and David Taylor run The Swan in East Harling

Jessica and David Taylor run The Swan in East Harling - Credit: Jessica Taylor

“Closing gave us the opportunity to do things we hadn’t had time to do, such as massively revamp the garden," the landlady added.

“We were just grateful when we were able to get our kitchen up and running, and to supply home-cooked food during the second lockdown.

"There were and still are people in far worse situations than us."

An area of concern at various stages of the pandemic has been Great Yarmouth, where the infection rate has often been Norfolk's highest.

The district had a record rate of 691.59 cases per 100,000 people when the latest lockdown was introduced in January, but this week reached single figures. 

Carl Smith, leader of the Great Yarmouth Borough Council, as the council and environmental health le

Carl Smith, leader of Great Yarmouth Borough Council - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

Carl Smith, leader of Great Yarmouth Borough Council, praised the public's continued commitment.

“I think the community has responded really well, especially when we have asked them to go that extra mile," added Mr Smith. 

“We had the spike that began in September, but we managed to get the numbers down and people are continuing to abide by the rules. Everyone likes to hug their mum, but it is about using your common sense.  

"Things are looking much rosier than they were at the turn of the year, but we all know Covid can come back to bite us. We cannot drop our guard.

"We are looking forward now to a really busy summer."