AS the easing of lockdown restrictions across Somerset continues, new research reveals how close the coronavirus is to spreading rapidly across Somerset.

Using data from Public Health England and Department of Heath and Social Care, researchers have modelled the R number of the virus by area, across the UK.

The R number is an indication of the spread of a virus, indicating how many people a Covid-positive person is infecting.

If the R number is less than one, the number of infections is falling (the epidemic is shrinking) - but more than one means it is spreading exponentially.

The research shows that on May 26, the seven-day rolling average R number for the Somerset County Council area was 0.96.

The Government has not released a breakdown of its estimated R number for local authority areas but official information says the R number in the UK, as of May 22, was between 0.7 and 1.

The figures differ the researchers have looked at the fluctuation of local cases over a time period to estimate a figure of how Covid could be spreading in an area, rather than the government’s calculation of estimated actual spread.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has emphasised how keeping the R number down is pivotal in deciding how and when to ease lockdown restrictions.

In a briefing after the Dominic Cummings controversy on May 24, Boris Johnson said: "We must keep reducing the incidence of this disease.

"We must keep that R down below one.

"And that means we must remember the basics.

"Wash our hands, keep social distance, isolate if you have symptoms – and get a test.

"We are beating this thing, but we will beat it all the faster if we stay alert, control the virus and save lives."

The estimated R number for local authority areas in Somerset and neighbouring counties:

Somerset County Council: 0.96
Bath & North East Somerset: 0.48
North Somerset: 0.93
Devon County Council: 0.49
Dorset County Council: 1.13

On March 23, when lockdown restrictions were introduced across the country, the researchers said the seven-day average R number in Somerset was 1.04.

On May 10, the Government announced an easing of restrictions, with people unable to work from home were encouraged to return, and limits on exercise time and location removed.

The seven-day average R number in Somerset at that point was said to be 0.64.

So, since the easing of restrictions started, the R number in Somerset has steadily increased, now standing at 0.96.

This is The West Country:

With some county schools set to re-open on Monday (June 1) a group of independent scientists has claimed the move could increase the R number by 0.3, potentially putting the country back on an increasing trajectory of infections.

“This is just too early,” said Sir David King, a former government chief scientific adviser and the chairman of Independent Sage.

“We know that ... opening up schools has the potential to raise R by up to 0.3. So we are really concerned that the level of infectivity across the country as a whole is too high to open schools.”

The Independent SAGE was founded in response to claims from some scientists that the official group, SAGE, lacked transparency.

But the Government has claimed the move to ease restrictions - including the phased re-opening of schools - is as safe as possible.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said measures such as limiting class sizes to groups of 15 and regular cleaning would be introduced.

"Together these measures will create an inherently safer system where the risk of transmission is substantially reduced for children, their teachers and also their families," he said.