England Boosts Tests to Curb Spread of South Africa Variant

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England will start mass testing for the South Africa coronavirus variant in eight different areas, after cases were found with no links to travel.

People over the age of 16 in the districts affected are being urged to get tested this week, so authorities can get a better picture of the spread of the mutation and ensure people with the disease are staying home.

Public health officials will set up mobile testing units and go door-to-door with home testing kits to encourage those without symptoms to get tested, while those with symptoms will be urged to book a test at an existing site.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it is “vital” to stop transmission of the variant. “I strongly urge everyone in these areas to get tested, whether you have symptoms or not.”

Cases of the South Africa variant have been found in Ealing, west London; Tottenham, north London; Mitcham, south London; Walsall, in the West Midlands; Broxbourne in the east of England; an area near Maidstone in Kent; Woking, south-west of London; and an area near Preston, northwest England.

Tracing

Checks carried out by Public Health England in the last week have identified 11 cases that cannot be linked to travel overseas, and scientists believe there are now some localized pockets of community transmission. The government wants to urgently cut these chains of infection, through self-isolation and “robust” contact tracing, to ensure the variant doesn’t take hold in the U.K.

Some 105 cases of the South Africa variant have been found in England since the mutation was first identified in December, but the true figure is likely to be significantly higher because only a small fraction of positive tests are genomically sampled to determine if they are the variant.

While there is no evidence the mutation causes more serious illness, it is believed to be more easily transmissible than the original virus. It is not yet known how it affects the efficacy of vaccines, although trials are under way with AstraZeneca in South Africa.

‘High Level’

Earlier, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there are signs the infection rate is flattening across the U.K., though he warned cases remain at a “really very high level.”

U.K.’s Johnson: Starting to See Signs of Infection Rate Flattening

The U.K. reported 18,607 confirmed coronavirus cases in the latest 24-hour period, compared with a 7-day rolling average of 24,245. The number is typically lower after the weekend. An additional 406 deaths were also reported.

In a pooled interview, Johnson indicated his government may continue with a national approach when it eases England’s third lockdown, potentially in early March, rather than return to a system of regional tiers. That’s because of the way a new variant identified in the U.K. has spread across the country.

“If you look at the way the new variant has taken off across the country, it’s a pretty national phenomenon,” he said. “I’m keeping an open mind on that.”

Community Transmission

Meanwhile authorities are working to keep the South Africa variant from spreading as the U.K. one has done.

“We know that the new variant of Covid-19, first detected in South Africa, has been identified in a number of areas across England,” Susan Hopkins, strategic response director to Public Health England, said in a statement. “A small proportion of these cases have no link to international travel suggesting that there are some cases in the community.”

The opposition Labour Party said the spread of the variant shows the U.K.’s quarantine requirements for travelers into the country aren’t working.

“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?” Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s home affairs spokesman said in an email.

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