A total of 105 cases of the South African variant have been found in the UK, however 11 cases have been identified with no known links to international travel. During a Downing Street press briefing on Monday, health secretary Matt Hancock said that door-to-door testing would be undertaken in the eight areas of England where those cases had been found in an effort to stamp out the variant.
The eight postcodes affected are:
- W7, N17, CR4 in London
- WS2 in Walsall in the West Midlands
- EN10 in Hertfordshire
- ME15 in Maidstone, Kent
- GU21 in Woking, Surrey
- PR9 in Southport, Merseyside
Mr Hancock said: 'If you live in one of these postcodes where we're sending in enhanced testing, then it is imperative that you stay at home, and that you get a test, even if you don't have symptoms. This is so important, so that we can break the chains of the transmission of this new variant.'
The health secretary said that there was 'currently no evidence to suggest this variant is any more severe, but we need to come down on it hard and we will'.
South African variant
Like the UK variant, the South African virus is known to be more transmissible than the original COVID-19 strain.
All over-16s in the affected areas have been asked to take a test and 'enhanced tracing' will be undertaken in a bid to identify all known contacts and ensure they isolate.
Anyone with symptoms has been advised to book a test in the usual way. Mobile testing units have also been deployed to test people without symptoms who have to leave their home for work, while local authorities will be providing home testing kits for everyone else without symptoms.
Any positive tests will be sent for genomic sequencing to establish if they are the new variant.
Mr Hancock said that local teams would be 'going door to door to ensure that people have the chance to get those tests in [these] postcode areas. So this is a big effort at trying to get the this new variant and, essentially, finding every single case of it – that is the goal.'
Public Health England's strategic response director and NHS Test and Trace chief medical adviser Dr Susan Hopkins said that the 11 cases did not appear to be linked and that they were likely to be related to somebody with an asymptomatic infection who had travelled to the UK from abroad.
She said: 'What we want to do is to prevent viruses with mutations being able to acquire more mutations, which they will do over time. So everything we can do to reduce the spread of this variant to detect cases with it, and break the chains of transmission, are essential.'
Dr Hopkins added that the South African variant had more mutations in the part of the spike protein that caused it 'to perhaps diminish effectiveness to a vaccine', but that the vaccines were 'still very good'. She said that it was 'unlikely' the vaccine programme would have to start again if the variant spread widely in the UK, but that people who had already been vaccinated may need a 'booster shot, a bit like the annual flu vaccine'.
During the briefing Mr Hancock also revealed that almost nine in 10 over 80s and half of those in their 70s had received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. In total 9.2m people across the UK have received a first dose of either the Pfizer or Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
The health secretary said that the UK had enough vaccine supply to meet its target of offering vaccination to the first four JCVI priority groups by 15 February and that the NHS was 'working very hard to make sure that everybody gets that offer'.
Latest figures show that over 900,000 vaccines were delivered over the weekend, with a record one-day total of 598,389 administered on Saturday.
Data from phase 3 trials of the yet-to-be-approved Novovax and Janssen vaccines suggest that they may have a lower efficacy rate against the new South African strain of the virus. However, the data suggests that the jabs will still provide protection against severe disease and hospitalisation.