An unprecedented testing blitz begins this morning in an effort to halt the spread of the South African variant of Covid-19.
Testers are to travel door-to-door in eight areas of England as health officials hope to urgently test 80,000 people in areas where cases have been detected.
Eleven cases of the variant identified over the past week were in people who had no links to travel, prompting concerns the mutation may be spreading in communities.
Here’s what it will involved...
Why has it been introduced?
Eleven cases of the variant have been identified over the last five or six days in people who have no links to travel – suggesting it may be spreading in communities.
The UK has now identified a total of 105 cases of the South Africa variant, which is thought to be as transmissible as the variant that was first identified in Kent but there is no evidence yet that it causes more severe disease.
Where will the testing happen?
The surge testing will commence in eight postcode areas including three in the capital: Hanwell, west London (W7); Tottenham, north London (N17) and Mitcham, south London (CR4).
Walsall in the West Midlands (WS2); Broxbourne, Hertfordshire (EN10); Maidstone, Kent, (ME15); Woking, Surrey (GU21); and Southport, Merseyside (PR9), will also be part of the surge programme.
How will it be carried out?
Each local authority has developed its own strategy for managing the surge testing, including opening new testing sites, sending out more home test kits and providing door-to-door testing.
Mobile testing units and additional home testing kits are being sent into the designated areas.
The government is encouraging everyone over 16 living in the eight zones to take a test this week.
What will happen to positive tests?
Experts from Public Health England (PHE) have previously been sequencing around 5% to 10% of all positive cases looking for variants.
However, positive tests in the eight areas in the programme will all be sequenced to identify any further spread of the South Africa variant.
What do residents living in affected areas need to do?
The government has said people with symptoms should book a test in the usual way, through the government website.
People without symptoms are directed to their local authority for information.
In Hertfordshire, residents of the EN10 area of Broxbourne can either book a test at one of two sites or collect a home testing kit for all members of the household.
The director of public health for Hertfordshire, Professor Jim McManus, said they would be starting door-to-door testing this week.
In Kent, door-to-door testing in the ME15 area will begin on Tuesday and residents will be visited by staff including from Kent Police, Maidstone Borough Council and Kent Fire and Rescue.
In Surrey, residents of selected parts of Woking in the GU21 postcode will be visited by a member of the council’s testing team who will leave enough kits for all members of a household aged 18 or over to carry out a test.
In Tottenham, in the borough of Haringey, teams will go door-to-door offering home testing kits and a mobile testing unit for people who do not have symptoms will also be set up.
Residents in Hanwell, Ealing, will be able to use a variant walkthrough testing centre and the council will also begin a door-to-door delivery of home test kits to all households.
In Mitcham, Merton, south London, thousands of extra tests will be available, with some delivered door-to-door in the affected area.
Households in Walsall, West Midlands, will be provided home test kits and testing units will be deployed offering testing to those living or working in the WS2 area.
In Southport, Merseyside, Sefton Council has said locally-led test kit door drops will be provided alongside existing testing.
Additional mobile testing units will also be supplied, which people without symptoms are asked to use.
Will it work?
It’s too early to tell but scientists aren’t optimistic. Gabriel Scally, visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol, told the Guardian: “This process is extraordinarily intensive and probably won’t succeed.”
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), according to The Times, said only mandatory hotel quarantines for all arrivals or a total border shutdown would keep mutations at bay.
Anything else I need to know?
The worry that the South Africa variant was spreading across England came as reports suggested scientists had recommended ministers should have gone harder with their border controls to stop new variants from entering the country.
A week after the advice was reportedly given to the UK government, the prime minister outlined his plan for travellers coming from 30 “red list” countries to face up to 10 days in hotel self-isolation, with no date yet set for when the rules will start to be enforced – proposals lighter than those pushed by Sage.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds called for the Home Office to “reverse this reckless policy of leaving our borders unlocked and open to further risk”.
He said: “Ministers have knowingly left the UK border open and potentially exposed people to new strains of the virus, in direct contradiction of their own government scientists’ advice.
“This puts the gains of the vaccine at risk, with disastrous consequences for people’s lives.
“The home secretary needs to come to parliament urgently and reverse this reckless policy of leaving our Borders unlocked and open to further risk.”