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Door-to-door testing for South African variant of Covid-19 due to start in Maidstone

Door-to-door coronavirus testing is due to get underway in parts of Maidstone today as the government clear up confusion over Matt Hancock's "stay at home" message.

The urgent large-scale testing operation comes after a resident tested positive for the South African variant of Covid-19.

The areas within ME15 being tested Image: KM Graphics
The areas within ME15 being tested Image: KM Graphics

Households within the ME15 postcode area as well as some parts of ME16 and ME17, which covers much of Maidstone, will be visited by staff from Kent Police, Maidstone Borough Council, Kent Fire and Rescue Services and other support agencies, who will knock on their door and ask everyone aged 16 and over to carry out a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test there and then.

But there has been confusion over which parts of the ME15 area - one of just a handful of areas in the UK where the new variant has been found with no link to international travel - will get a test and whether people need to stay indoors.

Health Secretary Mr Hancock said people living in the affected postcode areas should stay at home and get a test at yesterday's Downing Street briefing.

But this was contrary to advice from Kent County Council, which was reminding people that the national lockdown was still in place and that they should stay at home unless they needed to leave the house for essential reasons.

Mr Hancock had referred to entire postcode areas but KCC published a map showing the approximate area covered by the door-to-door testing, which was just part of the ME15 postcode and can be found here.

The Health Secretary had also said it was "imperative that you stay at home and you get a test, even if you do not have symptoms". "This is so important so that we can break the chains of transmission of this new variant," he added. "We have got to bring this virus to heal."

The briefing left many people unsure about what to do.

Responding on Facebook, James Lee posted: "I'm a keyworker based in ME15. Do I stay indoors, or do I go to work?"

Lisa Kent was similarly bemused, adding: "Can you get food shopping? As I was due to go shopping tomorrow?"

David James summed it up, posting: "Do schools need to shut completely in ME15? Briefing was as clear as mud!"

Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Picture: Pippa Fowles/No 10 Downing Street
Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Picture: Pippa Fowles/No 10 Downing Street

And Dot Comley asked: "This map leaves out a whole chunk of ME15 - are those people to go about their business as usual? This does not make sense."

This morning the Department of Health clarified the situation.

A spokesman confirmed the stay at home order was issued to the whole of ME15 but that essential workers can still go to work and shops can remain open – as per the national restrictions.

The area outlined by KCC's map is where the testing will take place.

A KCC spokesman added: "National lockdown rules still apply to all areas within the targeted testing area. No additional restrictions apply, you do not need to make any changes to your usual routine but you do need to continue to stick to the national lockdown rules.

"We will not be visiting every household in the target area. We will be visiting as many households as we can to get a significant number of tests which are needed to help understand the spread of the COVID-19 variant."

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan told Sky News earlier: "I think the message is think again just before you go about activities, even those that are within the rules such as essential shopping.

“Do you really need to go for that shopping or have you got enough in?

“Could you work from home? Could you have that extra conversation with your employer?

“And make sure you get the test."

This test will then be picked up and sent for laboratory testing within a short time of the initial visit by the same team.

The government has asked for as many people as possible in the area to be tested to prevent the spread of the strain.

The person who tested positive lives and works in Maidstone and no connection to travel to South Africa could be established, consequently raising the prospect of community transmission.

A total of 105 cases of the South African strain, called SARS-CoV-2, have now been identified across the UK.

KCC's director of public health Andrew Scott-Clark undergoing a Covid test on Sheppey in December
KCC's director of public health Andrew Scott-Clark undergoing a Covid test on Sheppey in December

Kent County Council (KCC) says residents should take the PCR test whether they have symptoms or not.

And if residents have either just had a test – or are booked in for a test soon – they should still take this test as additional sequencing for test positives will be undertaken.

The extra surge testing carried out in parts of the ME15 postcode area will be sent to laboratories for sequencing to identify whether any positive test results also test positive for the South African variant.

Andrew Scott-Clark, director of public health for KCC, said: “We have been asked by government to help investigate whether this variant of Covid-19 can be found in the ME15 postcode area after one person tested positive for this variant.

“By visiting houses door to door and offering a quick and easy PCR test, we can help restrict the spread of the virus even further, as well as testing all those samples for this South African variant."

“People across Kent should continue to follow the national restrictions that are currently in place.”

He added: “I would encourage everyone to play their part by taking this PCR test when it is offered and follow the usual advice around self-isolation if they test positive.

“I would like to reassure people that there is currently no evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 variant causes more severe illness, or that the vaccines being used will not protect against it.

“People across Kent should continue to follow the national restrictions that are currently in place.”

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