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image captionHome testing kits will be delivered to tens of thousands of people in England
People in areas that have been singled out for enhanced testing for the South African variant should further limit the time they spend away from home, a minister has said.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan said those affected should be “thinking twice about their actions”.
On-the-spot doorstep tests, home testing kits and mobile testing units will be deployed in eight areas.
The health secretary said he wanted to “come down hard” on the variant.
It follows fears that the more infectious version may be spreading in communities in England.
Ms Donelan told BBC Breakfast that people in the targeted areas should be having a “conversation with their employer about making sure that they can work from home” and “limiting even more the time that they are outside of their house”.
The enhanced testing programme aims to reach 80,000 people.
Matt Hancock said “finding every case” of the variant was the goal, with everyone over 16 in the targeted areas urged to take a test, whether they have symptoms or not.
Gene sequencing has so far uncovered 105 cases of the variant, which like the variant previously discovered in Kent is thought to be more contagious although not more deadly. Eleven of the cases of the South African variant had no link to foreign travel, prompting concerns it is spreading in the community.
Dr Susan Hopkins from Public Health England said the existing vaccines may offer less protection against the South African variant, although they still offer a good level of immunity.
The “surge testing” will take place in these eight areas linked to cases of the variant:
- Parts of the ME15 postcode area in Kent,
- Parts of the WS2 postcode area in Walsall in the West Midlands
- Parts of the GU21 postcode area in Woking, Surrey
- The CR4 postcode area around Pollards Hill in south London
- Tottenham Hale in the N17 area of north London
- The W7 area in Hanwell and West Ealing, London
- The EN10 postcode area in Broxbourne
- Parts of the PR9 area in Southport
In most of the areas, home testing kits are being delivered and collected, while some are also providing mobile testing sites. In Kent, police, council workers, firefighters and other agencies will visit homes to carry out on-the-spot tests of everyone in the household.
Sefton Council, which covers Southport, said on Monday it was still working out how the additional tests would be carried out, although it expected to establish dedicated testing sites for the new variant.
Mr Hancock also said it was “absolutely vital” that people in these areas where cases of the variant had been identified minimise all social contact.
media captionMatt Hancock: UK “must come down hard” on South Africa variant
Mass testing has previously been deployed in Liverpool, where more than 200,000 people were tested in November, detecting 800 asymptomatic cases.
It prompted plans to extend the testing programme to 67 areas of England, although concerns were raised about the reliability of the rapid “lateral flow” tests being used.
The “surge testing” being deployed in the eight areas where the South Africa variant was detected will, however, offer the more accurate PCR tests to people who need to leave home for work or other essential purposes.
In December, the discovery of the new strain prompted a ban on foreign nationals travelling into the UK from South Africa and later from southern African countries.
Under current restrictions, people arriving into England from anywhere outside the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man need to isolate at home for 10 days and provide a negative Covid test result before travel.
A new system of quarantine requiring those arriving from countries under travel bans to isolate in hotels is due to be introduced in the coming weeks.
Labour, however, wants the government to go further and introduce a hotel quarantine system for all UK arrivals.
On Monday, the House of Commons voted 262-0 in favour of a non-binding motion to introduce such a system. All Conservative MPs abstained.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds accused the government of being “irresponsible” not to back the motion.
“We have to do everything we can” to protect against “mutations emerging elsewhere”, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme,
Home Office minister Robert Courts said “blanket restrictions” had been considered but were “not appropriate”.
“We are an island nation yet a global hub” and it was “critical” to keep freight moving, he added.
According to the Times, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned Downing Street that only closing the borders or introducing mandatory quarantine for all would stop new variants entering the UK.
A government source told the BBC the report was “not accurate” and that the prime minister “was not advised to stop all travel”.
The latest data shows that 9,296,367 first doses of the vaccine have now been given, with almost half of people in their 70s given a jab and almost 90% of over-80s.
Dr Hopkins said laboratory studies were being carried out to provide further evidence of the vaccines’ effectiveness against new variants.
The three vaccines approved so far – Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Moderna – all showed effectiveness against the South Africa variant that was higher than the minimum standard set by the World Health Organization and the US Food and Drug Administration, she said.
She said she expected other vaccines to have similar levels of effectiveness against the variant, particularly in reducing serious illness and deaths from the virus.
On Monday the UK recorded 18,607 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 and a further 406 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.
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