Local restrictions such as a stay-at-home order could be used in parts of London if the South African variant cannot be contained or is found to be widespread among asymptomatic people.
Professor Kevin Fenton, London regional director for Public Health England, said the NHS was encountering a low number of cases of the South African variant across London, though more cases were popping up in the south London area than elsewhere.
“We’re finding cases because we’re doing more genetic sequencing of PCR positive tests of coronavirus, which we’re seeing across the city,” he told the BBC’s Today programme on 15 April.
Fenton’s comments echoed those made earlier by SAGE member and epidemiologist Professor John Edmunds, who said it was “possible” that local restrictions could be put back in place if surge testing does not prove effective in containing the variant.
“What we are looking at in south London is an example of what we’ll see now in the coming months, as we try our best to keep that variant out or at as low a level as we possibly can, because if these mass testing events don’t work that well, and we don’t know yet, I mean we’ll have to evaluate this one very carefully, then it’s possible that we’ll have to impose some sort of local restrictions back in place and nobody wants to do it,” Edmunds told ITV’s Robert Peston, in statements reported by the Evening Standard.
Surge testing is being rolled out in Barnet, Wandsworth, Lambeth and the SE16 postcode of Southwark to encourage those with no symptoms to get a laboratory PCR test, which is more sensitive than standard rapid testing.
When the variant first emerged earlier this year in areas such as Bristol, people were told to stay at home while the government got the virus under control. However, there are currently no stay at home rules in place for London.
“It’s partly because the level of infection that we’re now having across the city is quite low, so the probability of you not having the infection is much higher,” Fenton said. “And we want to test individuals who may be asymptomatically carrying the infection, so the risk of onward transmission is much lower as well.
“The combination of factors, the timing of where we are in the phase of the epidemic and the level of infections that we have really means that we can allow people to continue to move about [at the moment].”
However, Fenton warned that as London begins the process of unlocking and re-entering society, “even small numbers of variants when they occur can have the potential to spread very quickly”.
“There are going to be trade-offs in everything, so as we begin to recirculate in society, we want to encourage people to get vaccinated… we need to continue to practice our preventative measures and we need to do surge testing if we find variants in order to contain them,” he said.
Current vaccines developed by Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca are still likely to protect against severe illness in those who catch the South African variant, according to studies conducted by the pharmaceutical firms.
The variant is not thought to be more contagious than other mutated strains of coronavirus, but is estimated to cause more severe infections for those who have not been vaccinated.
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