Residents in parts of Surrey will be offered coronavirus tests after two people with no travel links were found to have caught the variant discovered in South Africa.
Households in the Goldsworth Park and St Johns areas of Woking will have a COVID-19 PCR test posted through their letterbox and be asked to take it – regardless of whether they have symptoms or not – from today.
The scheme is expected to be extended to Egham within the next few days.
Tests will be free and collected by a team of officials later the same day, with the samples taken to a lab to check whether the new variant is present.
Residents do not need to self-isolate unless they have symptoms, have already tested positive or were identified as a close contact of someone else who has the disease through Test and Trace.
Surrey’s Local Resilience Forum said the “surge testing” programme was to “closely monitor any community spread of the new variant, and restrict further transmission”.
In a bid to reassure the public, it said there is “currently no evidence” that the variant known as VOC-202012/02 causes more severe illness or is more resistant to the coronavirus vaccines currently being rolled out.
Director of Public Health for Surrey Ruth Hutchinson said: “This is a precautionary measure – the more cases of the variant we find, the better chance we have at stopping it from spreading further.
“By playing your part and taking the test, you’ll be helping to keep your community and your loved ones safe.
“It’s really important to say that there is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness, so you don’t need to worry.”
Dr Alison Barnett, regional director at Public Health England South East, added: “I urge everyone offered a test to take it up to help us to monitor the virus in our communities and to help suppress and control the spread of this variant.
“The most important thing is that people continue to follow the guidance that is in place – limit your number of contacts, wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, keep your distance and cover your face. If you test positive by any method, you must isolate to stop the spread of the virus.”
A total of 105 cases of the South Africa variant have been found to date in the UK.
Just over a week ago, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said all cases identified so far were connected to travel from South Africa.
But the two people discovered to have contracted it in Surrey had no links to travel or previous variant cases.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, speaking on a visit to a vaccine centre in Batley, West Yorkshire, said: “We’re confident that all the vaccines we’re using provide a high degree of immunity and protection against all variants.
“The interesting and exiting thing about… the vaccines we’re developing is increasingly, they’re capable of being adapted to deal with new variants as they arise.
“The fact is we’re going to be living with COVID for a while to come in one way or another.”
Professor Anthony Harnden, chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, told Sky News at the end of January: “The new variants abroad are a real worry – the South African and the Brazilian ones.
“And there are hints that there will be vaccine escape but I think we’re going to have to get used to this.
“We are living in a world where coronavirus is so prevalent and naturally mutating that there are going to be new variants that pop up in all sorts of different countries.
“We may well be in a situation where we end up having to have an annual coronavirus vaccine much like we do with the flu vaccine.
“But the public want to be reassured that actually these technologies are relatively easy to edit and tweak and once we find strains that are predominant, the vaccines can be altered.”
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