Covid testing ramps up as government moves to contain new strains

By Imogen Shaw

Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s new postcode-based rapid Coronavirus testing strategy has begun in earnest today, as approximately 80,000 people across eight UK postcodes await visits from door-to-door testers. Everyone over 16 in the targeted areas is being urged to take a test, whether they are experiencing Coronavirus symptoms or not.

The attempt to isolate each case of the new Coronavirus strain first identified in South Africa comes as new evidence has been uncovered of transmission in the community amongst people with no links to international travel.

Gene sequencing has so far turned up 105 cases of the new strain, which – like the mutant strain previously identified in Kent – is thought to be more contagious, although not more deadly.

As the UK’s vaccination programme continues apace, with projections that every adult in the country could be offered their first dose of the vaccine by May, the government is keen to avoid the wider transmission of new Coronavirus strains that could come to jeopardise the effectiveness of the vaccines in combatting the disease.

This morning, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan echoed Hancock’s sentiments that the government needs to “come down hard” on the new variant, calling on people in postcode areas that have been singled out for enhanced testing to further limit the amount time they spend away from their homes.

It’s hardly a surprise that the government is prepared to pull out all the stops to prevent new Coronavirus strains from taking hold in the general population. However, the government has other incentives to ensure their messaging – and door-to-door mobile testing operation – is well-received and understood by both the general public and commentators in the media.

The rapid operation to quell the new variant comes as those close to the Prime Minister issue strong denials of a report in The Times, which claims that SAGE  previously warned him to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for all overseas arrivals or else close the borders to prevent new Coronavirus strains entering the UK.

The Times report, which further claims both Hancock and Home Secretary Priti Patel urged the PM to issue stricter travel restrictions but were overruled, appears to have sparked fears within government that last week’s announcement of limited hotel quarantine measures for travellers from 30 “high-risk” countries will unleash a fresh round of criticism for moving too slowly and too late.

With pressure growing to take more stringent action on travel restrictions, the government clearly understands just how important making a success of its rapid testing operation will be for public trust.

With Patel set to announce further details of quarantine measures for “high-risk” arrivals next week, the pressure is on for the government to demonstrate that its rapid testing response is capable of keeping the public safe from new variants.

While Hancock has not ruled out increased hyper-local restrictions in affected areas, it remains to be seen whether the mobile testing rollout will be enough to prevent the new strain taking hold as the variant identified in Kent did before it.

If the measures taken to isolate this latest strain prove ineffective, it will become increasingly challenging for the government to maintain its current position on travel restrictions. With the issue gaining traction amongst a public that has now undergone almost a year of difficult restrictions on their freedoms, and in many cases has seen people endure personal and financial hardship as a result of the pandemic, the effective rollout of the vaccination programme might not be enough to shield the government from pressure to avert course.