Door-to-door testing to root out 'every single case' of South Africa Covid variant

2 February 2021, 09:01 | Updated: 2 February 2021, 14:53

By Asher McShane

A door-to-door testing blitz of 80,000 people in England is aiming to find "every single case" of the South Africa coronavirus variant after 11 cases were discovered in people with no links to travel or previous cases of the strain.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it was "on all of us" to contain the new variant, which is feared to be spreading in communities.

Read more: Kent coronavirus mutation: What is the E484K strain and will it impact vaccine efficiency?

Urgent Covid-19 tests are being carried out in eight areas of England as the number of cases of the South Africa variant rose to 105 to date.

Mobile testing units and home testing kits will be deployed to areas where the variant has been discovered as the UK Government looks to prevent it getting a foothold.

Two people in Surrey and one in Kent were among the 11 individuals who were found to have tested positive for the variant, despite having no links to travel or previous cases of the strain.

So far, over 100 cases of the strain have been identified to date across the UK, but this is the first sign of wider community spread. There is currently no evidence that the variant causes more severe illness.

Door-to-door testing will begin in Surrey but will also take place in London, Kent, Hertfordshire and Walsall.

READ MORE: What is the South African Covid-19 variant?

Households in the Goldsworth Park and St Johns areas in Woking will be asked to have a coronavirus test, even if they don't have any symptoms.

Door-to-door testing will also begin in the ME15 area of Maidstone, Kent, on Tuesday, after a resident who had no links to travel or other variant cases tested positive for the variant.

Other areas where additional surge testing and sequencing will take place are:

- W7 (Ealing), N17 (Tottenham) and CR4 (Mitcham) in London

- WS2 in Walsall, West Midlands

- EN10 in Broxbourne, Essex

- PR9 near Southport, Merseyside

Every person over 16 living in these locations is strongly encouraged to take a Covid test this week, whether they are showing symptoms or not.

Volunteers are briefed at Woking Fire Station before carrying out door-to-door coronavirus testing
Volunteers are briefed at Woking Fire Station before carrying out door-to-door coronavirus testing. Picture: PA

Speaking during a Downing Street press briefing on Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that the UK is using its expertise to ensure that new Covid-19 variants are quickly identified.

"A mutation in one part of the world is a threat to people everywhere," he said.

He said that while there is no evidence the South Africa strain is more deadly, "we need to come down on it hard".

Mr Hancock said the UK is "surging" extra testing into the areas where the new variant has been found and going door to door to conduct the testing.

Read more: PM: Signs lockdown is working but too early to 'take foot off throat of the beast'

He said it was "imperative" that people in these areas stay at home and get a test when it is offered to them, even if they have no symptoms.

The Health Secretary said it was "on all of us" to contain the new South African variant within the community.

He added: "It is not straightforward and as you say there may be further cases we don't know about yet and our genomic sequencing is in place to try to spot them.

"The most important thing is that people in the postcode areas outlined need to take extra special precautions.

"It is absolutely vital that people in those areas minimise all social contact and get a test when the opportunity arises.

"It's a big effort getting this new variant... essentially finding every single case of it, that is the goal."

Dr Susan Hopkins said three of the vaccines that had been used in trials had shown to be effective against the new South African coronavirus variant.

"We expect all other vaccines to have a similar level of effectiveness, particularly in reducing hospitalisation and death," she said.

Dr Hopkins added that further testing was taking place involving the South African variant so that predictions could be made with "greater robustness."

London Mayor Sadiq Khan told LBC that anyone over that age in the three London postcodes outlined above should check local council information online and submit for tests.

"We need to understand how much of this particular strain of the virus has come into the community," he told LBC.

The Department of Health and Social care said Mobile Testing Units (MTUs) will be deployed offering PCR testing to people without symptoms who have to leave their home for work or essential reasons, with local authorities encouraging people to get tested in the area by providing additional home test kits.

People with symptoms should book a test in the usual way and people without symptoms should visit their Local Authority website for more information.

Some of the vaccines in use and currently going through approval have shown some effectiveness against the variant.

Nick Thomas-Symonds MP, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, said the news was "deeply worrying" and called on the Government to ensure adequate isolation support is put in place for those required to self-isolate.

He said: “This is deeply worrying. It shows the UK Government’s quarantine system is not working with the country being exposed to dangerous strains of the virus and new cases now appearing.

“While door-to-door testing is welcome in areas where cases of the South African variant with no links to travel have been identified, how can the Home Secretary justify keeping our borders open to Covid, allowing around 21,000 people to arrive every day?

“Conservative MPs must vote with Labour today to secure our borders against Covid and help to prevent progress on the vaccine being undermined.

“The Government must also ensure that adequate isolation support is put in place for those required to self-isolate.”

Surrey Local Resilience Forum (SLRF), along with Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care, will carry out "surge testing", in which residents in the Goldsworth Park and St Johns areas of Woking will be visited and requested to take a PCR test regardless of symptoms.

Ruth Hutchinson, director of public health for Surrey, said: "This is a precautionary measure - the more cases of the variant we find, the better chance we have at stopping it from spreading further. By playing your part and taking the test, you'll be helping to keep your community and your loved ones safe.

"It's really important to say that there is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness, so you don't need to worry."

Andrew Scott-Clark, Director of Public Health for Kent County Council said: “We have been asked by Government to help investigate whether this variant of COVID-19 can be found in the ME15 postcode area after one person tested positive for this variant.

"By visiting houses door to door and offering a quick and easy PCR test, we can help restrict the spread of the virus even further, as well as testing all those samples for this South African variant.

"Our colleagues from Kent Police, Maidstone Borough Council, Kent Fire and Rescue and other support agencies will be carrying out these household visits and they are well trained in how to support people carrying out these tests.

“I would encourage everyone to play their part by taking this PCR test when it is offered and follow the usual advice around self-isolation if they test positive.

"I would like to reassure people that there is currently no evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 variant causes more severe illness, or that the vaccines being used will not protect against it. People across Kent should continue to follow the national restrictions that are currently in place.”

Dr Alison Barnett, regional director at Public Health England South East, said: "The UK has one of the best genomic systems in the world which has allowed us to detect the variant originating in South Africa here in Surrey.

"I urge everyone offered a test to take it up to help us to monitor the virus in our communities and to help suppress and control the spread of this variant.

"The most important thing is that people continue to follow the guidance that is in place - limit your number of contacts, wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, keep your distance and cover your face. If you test positive by any method, you must isolate to stop the spread of the virus."