Published: 06:00, 23 October 2020
| Updated: 16:10, 26 October 2020
Sewage in parts of Kent is being checked for signs of coronavirus.
Results from the programme, which was announced in June, will share data with the test and trace app.
It has previously shown that fragments of genetic material from the virus can be found in wastewater, which can then indicate where a local community is experiencing a spike in cases.
The project has "successfully worked" in the south-west of England, where samples showed an increase in Covid-19 material despite low numbers of people seeking tests.
The data was then passed through test and trace to the local council which was able to alert local health bodies.
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “This initiative is just one example of how we are working across government and with local partners to find innovative, new ways to track the outbreak, slow the spread of the virus and save lives.
“Monitoring and sampling wastewater offers another tool to help us identify outbreaks early on - helping test and trace and local authorities target hotspots quickly and effectively.
“As we see an increase in cases across the country, it remains vitally important that everyone continues to follow Hands, Face and Space, gets a test and self-isolates if they display any coronavirus symptoms and follows the advice of NHS Test and Trace.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has made clear the likelihood of coronavirus being transmitted via sewage systems is "extremely low or negligible".
Environment Secretary George Eustice added: “This is a significant step forward in giving us a clearer idea of infection rates both nationally and locally, particularly in areas where there may be large numbers of people who aren’t showing any symptoms and therefore aren’t seeking tests.
“Test and trace is able to use the science to ensure local health leads are alerted and can take action.
“We are continuing to look at how this programme can be refined as one of the many measures we’re using to slow the spread of the virus and protect local communities."
The Environment Agency confirmed results will be released "shortly" following their recent tests, but didn't have an exact date.
Samples are collected in two ways - either by an automatic sampler which collecst sewage spread over a 24-hour period, or single samples can also be taken in the morning when sewage flow is at its highest.
The samples are transported to the Environment Agency’s Starcross lab in Devon, or Bangor University laboratories by 6am the next day.