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80,000 People Are Urgently Being Asked To Get Tested For South African Covid Variant As New Cases Spike

Around 80,000 people are being asked to take a Covid test to check for the South African variant of Covid-19 (PA)

5 min read

The government is going door to door testing for the South African variant of Covid-19 amid fears it is spreading around the country.

Multiple cases of the more transmissible version of the disease have been discovered in recent days where those who tested positive have no known links to recent travel or other identified cases. 

Matt Hancock said the UK must "come down hard" on the new variant after 105 cases have been identified in the UK since 22 December. But while 94 of those had links to travel, Public Health England said 11 did not.

This suggests the new variant is already in community transmission, prompting health chiefs to dispatch mobile testing units and home testing kits to check on around 80,000 people in eight postcode areas across England.

They are Hanwell, Tottenham and Mitcham in London, as well as Walsall, Broxbourne, Maidstone, Woking and Southport.

In other coronavirus developments:

  • Government admits it has missed its target to offer vaccines to all care workers by end of January

  • Labour calls for Covid vaccine clinics in the heart of communities with locally-led plans to drive BAME uptake

  • The UK will share coronavirus vaccines with other countries only after it's hit roll out targets, Liz Truss says

Health secretary Matt Hancock said it was "imperative" people in those areas stay at home and get a test when it is offered to them, whether they have symptoms or not.

Speaking at the Downing Street press conference he said: "A mutation in one part of the world is a threat to people everywhere.”

Like the Kent variant, the South African one is thought to be more transmissible, but there is no evidence it causes more severe illness. It is not yet known, however, whether the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will be effective against it.

Public Health England’s Dr Susan Hopkins told the press conference that three other vaccines had been shown to work against the variant, adding: "We expect all other vaccines to have a similar level of effectiveness, particularly in reducing hospitalisation and death.”

Earlier ministers admitted their pledge to roll out vaccines to all care home staff has been missed, despite achieving their target of offering jabs to all care home residents.

Care minister Helen Whately said the government had hit their "milestone" target of rolling out vaccines to all older residents in over 10,000 care homes in England by the end of January, with only a small number of those with Covid outbreaks being missed.

But she was forced to admit their target to also offer vaccines to all care staff over the same period had been missed.

It comes as industry groups and charities said they were "concerned" at the failure to protect care staff and called on the government to leave "no stone unturned" in protecting older residents.

Asked about the issue Downing Street said official figures are expected to confirm the vaccine had been offered to residents and staff at every eligible care home with older residents across England.

However a "small number" have had their visits "briefly delayed" for safety reasons due to local outbreaks, but these will be visited and vaccinated "as soon as NHS staff are able to go into those homes and do so".

Speaking to the media this afternoon Boris Johnson said the achievement was "a crucial milestone in our ongoing race to vaccinate the most vulnerable against this deadly disease”.

During a visit to a vaccination centre in Batley, West Yorkshire, the Prime Minister said the take-up of the vaccine among care home staff has been "an issue”, but the government was "working fast" to sort it out.

He told reporters: "We're very pleased we've been able to give all elderly care home residents, virtually all elderly care home residents, have now been given their first jab or a slot for the first jab.

"That's very important for getting the spread of the virus down, getting the serious illness and fatalities down.

"We must make sure we go forward with the second jab for everybody.

"A few have already had the second jab but everybody will get one within 12 weeks of their first jab."

The PM added that he wanted to see care home residents and their families reunited "as soon as we sensibly and safely can" but it must be done cautiously.

Earlier the government revealed 319,038 doses of the vaccine were handed out yesterday, down by almost half from the record 598,389 reported yesterday, although it is 40,000 more than the figure from last Monday.

There were another 406 deaths reported today, down by almost 200 from last Monday, taking the total in the past seven days to 8,033, down 638 from the previous week.

Meanwhile in other vaccine news the UK has procured 40 million more doses of the version created by Valneva, in addition to the 60 million that were already purchased.

The jab will be manufactured in Scotland, but is yet to be approved by the medicines regulator.

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