Surge testing has been expanded in London to two further postcodes in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa.
On Tuesday it was announced that surge testing would be carried out in Lambeth and Wandsworth in south London after 44 confirmed cases and 30 further probable cases of Covid involving the “South Africa variant” were found, largely in these areas.
Now surge testing – increased testing, which can include door-to-door tests of people who do not have any symptoms, and enhanced contact tracing – will also be carried out in the boroughs of Southwark and Barnet.
According to the Department of Health and Social Care, a case detected in Southwark is linked to the clusters in nearby Lambeth and Wandsworth.
“The confirmed case is self-isolating and their contacts have been identified,” the DHSC has said, adding that specific households in the SE16 postcode would be given leaflets inviting them to get tested or be asked to complete a home test.
“Everybody aged 11 years and over in this area who is contacted and invited to take part is strongly encouraged to take a Covid-19 PCR test, whether they are showing symptoms or not,” the DHSC said. (Polymerase chain reaction tests check for the genetic material of the virus and are processed in a laboratory.)
While surge testing is already under way in Southwark, it is set to begin on Thursday in Barnet, north London, after one confirmed case of the South Africa variant was found in the area. The council told the Guardian this case was unrelated to the south London cluster.
“From Thursday 15 April we will start testing people for this variant in specific postcode areas affected in N3 or those who shop on the local high street,” the council has said, adding that only those aged 16 or over need to take the test.
“Targeted testing is planned to last for up to two weeks and will be kept under close review,” the council said.
The news follows warnings by scientists on Tuesday that surge testing alone may not be enough to curb the spread of coronavirus variants. Some have called for increased restrictions – among other measures – in areas where the South Africa variant has been found.
This variant is of concern as it is thought to at least partially evade the body’s immune responses towards coronavirus – including those produced by some Covid vaccines.
Prof Christina Pagel, director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London and a member of the Independent Sage group of experts, said it is important to contain the cluster, and that surge testing was one approach. She said extra support for isolation if testing positive – as is being offered in Lambeth – is also important.
But, she said, further action may be needed. “The South African variant seems concentrated in London right now and given that, if the government are as worried about this variant as they say they are, it would make sense to keep restrictions in London going longer,” said Pagel, adding that it would not be feasible to introduce restrictions only to certain boroughs.
She added that the need for such measures depends on how much is known about the clusters and how well contacts are traced. “If they can link all cases to other cases, then it is more likely they can get on top of the surge without needing wider restrictions,” she said.
Pagel added that the south London cluster is thought to have been traced back to one person who entered the UK in February.
“This highlights the paramount importance of proper border quarantine in a hotel and from all destinations,” she said, adding that India, the US and several European countries were among those that should be on the UK’s red list.
“If we keep encouraging international travel, we will end up importing unwelcome variants that could spread widely.”