THE waiting game is on. Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon are hoping, wishing, praying that the news next week from the laboratory about Covid-19’s Indian variant will be positive and finally turn this month into propitious May.

Which will mean so-called Freedom Day in England remains on course for June 21 and Scotland can enjoy the delights of level 0 around the same time when most, if not all, restrictions will be lifted.

However, the pandemic has shown that as we put out one fire, another blaze flares up somewhere else. Yesterday, East Renfrewshire overtook Glasgow as Scotland’s Covid hotspot.

The timing of the rise of the Indian variant could not have been worse just as the first major lifting of restrictions occurred across the country and people were allowed to travel abroad.

Yet the pandemic has also shown many times how science has become our strongest ally and closest friend.

The surge testing and mass inoculation for B.1.617.2 has now moved from the likes of Bolton, Blackburn, Glasgow and Moray to six other areas, including Leicester, Burnley, Bedford and north Tyneside.

The new areas have been selected by an “incredibly sensitive biosecurity surveillance system”, which has identified the initial variant hotspots in Lancashire. The number of recorded cases of the Indian variant is around 3,000, up 30 per cent in just three days. Nearly 90 local councils have reported five or more cases.

In Bolton, the number of those infected has doubled in a week. It is now Britain’s prime hotspot with more than 300 cases per 100,000 people.

Memories of last November have been rekindled; how, while case numbers were falling across the country, they were rising in Kent due, we quickly discovered, to a new variant.

Indeed, Professor Andrew Hayward, an infectious diseases expert at University College London, said he was “very concerned” about the Indian variant and its ability to spread quickly. Worryingly, he suggested the country could be at the start of a third wave of coronavirus.

Noting how “more generalised measures” may be needed to control it, the government adviser argued it was important to “minimise travel full-stop, whether it’s to red-list or amber-list countries, because there is mixing involved in travelling both on aeroplanes, in airports, and, of course, in the country where you go to”.

Yesterday a row broke out after the spread of the Indian variant was partially blamed on the “sporadic failure” of England’s test-and-trace system as it emerged there was a delay in passing on information about more than 700 positive cases to eight local authorities, including Blackburn, one of the hotspots.

No 10 acknowledged there had been a “short delay” in alerting the councils but stressed all positive cases were contacted, told to self-isolate for 10 days and the issue was “quickly resolved”.

It now seems clear the Indian variant is set to become the dominant strain of Covid-19 across the UK but the key questions are: how transmissible is it and how effective are the vaccines against it.

On the former, scientists believe it could be anywhere between 5% to 50% more infectious. If it is nearer the higher end, then Prof Hayward could be right; the UK will soon see a surge in cases that could result in significant hospital admissions despite the impressive vaccine rollout.

This week, the metaphor-loving Jonathan Van-Tam, the UK Government’s Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser, told a Downing Street press conference the rate of transmissibility of the Indian variant was the “million dollar question”, but made clear the infection’s spread could be slowed if people used “cautious behaviour”.

Referring to the new freedoms people will have with the raising of restrictions, Prof Van-Tam said: “I’ve said ‘don’t tear the pants out of it’ once before… but, frankly, we’re back to that again now.”

On the latter, most of the Indian variant cases in Bolton are among under-25s, suggesting the vaccinations are working. While the scientific results on the Indian variant are not due out until next week, confidence is rising across Whitehall.

On Wednesday night, the ebullient Prime Minister told the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers the data he had seen made him “even more cautiously optimistic” than last week that the rendezvous with freedom could be kept.

One health official also struck an upbeat note, telling the Politico website: “We are learning more about the variant almost every hour and the mood music has definitely improved.”

Governments are likely to wait until mid-June to decide on whether or not the final unlockdown will go ahead. It could be some elements, such as an end to social distancing, are pushed back to a later date, meaning Freedom Day will arrive but with not as much freedom as people were expecting.

Bolstering optimism, today, a long-running survey suggests the consumer is back. Public confidence has apparently returned to its pre-pandemic levels boosted by the reopening of shops and the continued roll-out of vaccines. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that inflation is on the rise as consumer demand returns.

It may well be that, while cases of infection rise over summer as people mix more, the vaccination programme will successfully take the strain and hospitalisations and deaths will continue to fall, meaning Covid-19 becomes akin to flu; something we have to live with and take annual jabs for. And yet what this pandemic has taught us is that certainty is never assured.

Another variant could set back our recovery and, while other countries continue to fight their own battles against coronavirus, the threat persists and some restrictions might be needed in the months ahead. Caution and vigilance, it seems, are set to be our companions for some time to come.