Proactive surge testing for new Covid-19 variants is needed to help officials “get ahead of the infection”, a public health director has said.
Professor Kevin Fenton, London’s regional director of Public Health England (PHE), said more genetic sequencing of positive coronavirus tests had identified cases of the South African variant in the capital.
Additional testing facilities have been set up in parts of London to process hundreds of thousands of residents following the detection of cases of the variant of concern.
Home testing kits will be delivered door-to-door in the N3 postcode area of Barnet, north London, on Thursday after a case was detected locally.
It follows more than half a million adults living in south London boroughs being offered tests, including 264,000 in Lambeth, 265,000 in Wandsworth, and 14,800 in the Rotherhithe ward of Southwark.
The extra testing comes as new analysis revealed that Covid-19 rates dropped below 100 cases per 100,000 people in all local areas of UK for the first time since September.
Prof Fenton told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “As we begin the process of unlocking and re-entering society and mixing, even small numbers of variants, when they occur, can have the potential to spread relatively quickly.
“And that is why we have such a proactive programme of screening for and testing for the new variants, and, where we have found, we surge.
“We need to get ahead of the infection, and not keep following behind it.”
Prof Fenton said vaccines and surge testing were part of a “package of interventions” for managing life with coronavirus in future.
He added that the low level of coronavirus infection in London meant those taking part in the asymptomatic testing surge could “move about” afterwards.
Data up to April 7 suggests there have been 544 cases of the South African variant found in the UK in total, including 533 genomically confirmed cases and 11 probable cases.
Meanwhile, the Guardian reported that a submission from the Equality and Human Rights Commission to a Government review into so-called vaccine passports said they could be a “proportionate” way of easing restrictions, but risked “unlawful discrimination” against people from disadvantaged or ethnic minority backgrounds by restricting access to jobs and services.
According to figures compiled by the PA news agency, the highest Covid-19 rate anywhere in the country is currently 98.8 cases per 100,000 in Mansfield in Nottinghamshire; the lowest is just 1.0 in both Rother in East Sussex and North Devon, while the Orkney Islands and Western Isles are recording no cases.
The last time every local area of the UK recorded weekly rates below 100 was for the seven days to September 1 2020.
The data analysis comes as people in England enjoy new freedoms, such as visiting outdoor hospitality, under the latest easing of lockdown restrictions.
But doctors have warned that ventilation in pubs and restaurants must be improved to prevent another spike in Covid-19 infections.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said more needs to be done to protect against airborne transmission of the virus and that pubs, bars and restaurants, workplaces and other public settings should be given ventilation guidance as the public prepares to return to indoor premises.
A study published in the British Medical Journal by researchers from the University of Leicester, the University of Hong Kong, Edinburgh Napier University and Virginia Tech in the US, said the “tiniest suspended particles can remain airborne for hours”.
The authors urged governments and health leaders to “focus their efforts on airborne transmission”.
Dr Julian Tang, consultant virologist at Leicester Royal Infirmary and one of the study’s authors, said improving a building’s indoor ventilation to tackle coronavirus transmission will cost money but would help maintain a degree of safety over time.
He said that the Government’s public health message of “hands, face, space” had the “wrong” emphasis, and should instead be “space, space, hands”.
Dr Tang explained that coronavirus transmits across “conversational distance” of within a metre, suggesting that the “garlic-breath distance” can indicate whether someone is close enough to pass it on.
“When you’re talking to a friend or sharing the same air as you’re listening to your friend talking, we call it the garlic-breath distance,” he said.
“So if you can smell your friend’s lunch, you’re inhaling some of that air as well as any virus that’s inhaled with it.”
Meanwhile, the Government is launching a five-week consultation on whether it should make the vaccination of people working in care homes with older adults mandatory.
The Department of Health and Social Care is seeking views on any potential impact the measure could have on staffing and safety, how it could be implemented and who could be exempt, with a decision expected in the summer.