Surge testing is to be set up in Norfolk to try to keep a lid on positive cases of the South African variant of Covid-19 – but just how concerned should people be?
Norfolk’s public health director Dr Louise Smith has said that testing will begin on Friday.
But she said it was “a precaution”, that overall numbers in South Norfolk are down and added there was “no need for people to worry”.
What is the South African variant?
In January, researchers from South Africa identified a Covid-19 variant, called 501Y.V2.
That variant contains mutations that may be resistant to immunity from previous coronavirus infection.
And there are concerns it spreads more easily than the original virus, although no evidence yet that it causes more serious disease.
The South African variant is thought to be as transmissible as the variant that was first identified in Kent but there is no evidence as of yet that it causes more severe disease.
Tests are still going on to establish how effective the current vaccines are against that – and other – variants.
Why is surge testing being introduced?
An increase in cases of the variant over the past few weeks has prompted concern it is spreading in communities.
Announcing surge testing in other parts of the county, health secretary Matt Hancock said “we need to come down on it hard” as he launched a policy of door-to-door testing and enhanced contact tracing.
The testing will establish how widespread the South African variant is.
Testing people who are have no symptoms will mean they can be told to self-isolate to limit spread.
And their close contacts can then be traced and told to self-isolate.
How many cases have their been in Norfolk?
Dr Smith has stressed that numbers of the South African variant are low and that the overall rate of Covid-19 cases in South Norfolk and Norfolk as a whole are falling.
Earlier this month, Dr Smith said Norfolk cases of coronavirus caused by the South African variant of Covid-19 were being “watched like hawks”.
Dr Smith had said there were between five to 10 cases of Covid-19 which had been identified as being the South African variant.
She had said all those cases were linked to people who had travelled to or from South Africa.
She had said: “We are watching this like hawks.
“We still have very low case numbers, between five to 10 cases.
“But what we have done is adopted a more hands-on approach to contact tracing.
“That’s being done by a specialist consultant in public health, with more bespoke advice and more support.
“So, we’ve set let us arrange deliveries to those people and, if a friend had been doing them, then get them tested as well.
“We are confident at this stage that everybody who has been sequenced and found to have the South African virus has a link to travel to South Africa, either themselves or because someone in their household has travelled.”
Where has testing happened already?
Surge testing initially started in eight postcode areas including three in London, Walsall in the West Midlands (WS2); Broxbourne, Hertfordshire (EN10); Maidstone, Kent, (ME15); Woking, Surrey (GU21); and Southport, Merseyside (PR9).
That has now been extended to the IP22 postcode area of South Norfolk, Southampton and Woking in Surrey,
How will it be carried out?
Details of just what will happen in Norfolk have yet to be announced, but Dr Smith has said it will start on Friday.
Other areas have opened new testing sites, sent 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.
What will happen to positive tests?
Experts from Public Health England (PHE) have previously been sequencing around 5pc to 10pc of all positive cases looking for variants.
However, positive tests in the areas in the programme will all be sequenced to identify any further spread of the South Africa variant.
What do people 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.
But people in DIss and Roydon are to be asked to take a test, even if they do not have symptoms.
Norfolk County Council is due to release further details in due course.