The Government knew the troublesome South African Covid variant was spreading in England in December — but did not launch a mass testing drive to find cases until this week.
On December 22, the first two people with the variant in the UK were discovered by Public Health England and neither of them had been to South Africa but contracted the virus from someone who had.
Another case without travel links was then discovered on January 5, which PHE now admits needed ‘further investigation’. Eight more were found on January 26.
No10’s frantic door-to-door testing campaign began properly yesterday – one week after the discovery of those eight – to try to thwart the spread of the virus in at least eight areas across the country.
But critics have claimed it is too late to try to contain the variant now and that it was ‘astonishing’ that a greater effort hadn’t been made earlier.
The dates provided by Public Health England are the ones marking when the virus was sequenced, meaning the 11 people were actually infected days or possibly even weeks earlier.
By the time community testing had begun, one mathematician said the virus could already have been spreading rampantly. Another expert added: ‘The variant genie is well and truly out of the bottle.’
Walsall in the West Midlands is one of the places included in the mass testing drive but the public health director in the borough said the only case without a travel link they had found was in December, five weeks ago.
As well as being a step behind the virus, the door-to-door testing could also raise the risk of actually spreading the virus, experts have warned. They claim sending people knocking on doors during a national lockdown was ‘unwise’.
The Department of Health and PHE did not comment before publication.
Public Health England confirmed that the 11 cases of the South African variant in people who hadn’t travelled to the country were found on December 22, January 5 and January 26 – the mass community testing began on February 2
Surge testing is now taking place at a variety of locations in England amid concerns about the mutant strains of the virus. Walsall is included in the list despite it not having recorded a case of the variant without travel links since December, a local official said
‘If it’s true that the Government knew about cases of the South African variant without links to travel to South Africa circulating in the community since the 22nd of December, it’s astonishing that it’s taken them until February to do something about it,’ Dr Kit Yates, a mathematical biologist at the University of Bath, and member of Independent SAGE, told MailOnline.
‘If there’s one lesson we should have learned from dealing with this virus, it’s that early action always pays dividends and delays always make things worse.’
Dr Yates said it was promising that the cases had all emerged during lockdowns so their spread might have been limited, but said testing now was likely too late.
He added: ‘I suspect at this stage that it is very unlikely to make a difference.’
The door-to-door testing blitz began as Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced 11 cases of the variant were found in people who had not travelled to South Africa.
He said in a Downing Street press conference on Monday: ‘Eleven of those cases don’t appear to have any links to international travel.
SURGE TESTING STARTS IN EIGHT AREAS TO CONTAIN SOUTH AFRICA VARIANT
No10 on Monday launched a mass-testing drive to swab 80,000 people in eight areas of England where cases of the South African variant were discovered in people who hadn’t been to the country.
The testing started in parts of London, Walsall, Maidstone, Broxbourne, Woking and Southport, and was then expanded to parts of Bristol and Liverpool when other versions of the virus with the same mutation as South Africa’s were announced.
And Downing Street delivered a tough message that people in the affected areas should only leave home if it is unavoidable — suggesting that means using tinned food at home if possible rather than going to the shops.
But amid the frantic bid to try and stop the mutated variants spreading in Britain, scientists said the cases identified so far are likely just the ‘tip of the iceberg’.
Mr Hancock said on Monday: ‘In those areas where this [South African] variant has been found – parts of Broxbourne, London, Maidstone and Southport, Walsall and Woking – we’re putting in extra testing and sequencing every positive test.
‘Working with local authorities we’re going door to door to test everyone in those areas and mobile testing units will be deployed offering PCR tests to people who have to leave their home for work or other essential reasons.
‘We have also seen 11 cases of mutations of concern in Bristol and 32 in Liverpool, and are taking the same approach. In all these areas it is imperative that people must stay at home and only leave home where it is absolutely essential.’
Public Health England discovered the cases through random spot-checks on the swabs that people testing positive have submitted through the official testing scheme.
This means that only a small proportion of the cases are sampled and, if they can be picked up randomly, it is likely there are large numbers of them.
Professor Andrew Hayward, an infectious disease expert at University College London and a member of SAGE, said that the 11 cases are the ‘tip of the iceberg’. He told Sky News: ‘We sequence between five and 10 per cent of cases so you can immediately tell from that that we have a big under-estimation of the number of cases.’
‘There’s currently no evidence to suggest this variant is any more severe, but we need to come down on it hard and we will. We’ve already made sure that all these cases are isolating and that we’ve done enhanced contact tracing of all of their close contacts.
‘We are surging extra testing into the areas where this variant has been found and sequencing every single positive case.’
Public Health England confirmed that 94 out of the 105 people infected with the South Africa variant by Monday had all personally been to the country. The total has since risen to 143.
Ministers and experts are worried about the variant because it carries a mutation that appears to help the virus get past immunity developed from a vaccine or a past infection with Covid-19.
But it now transpires that the 11 cases used by Matt Hancock to trigger the testing scheme had been known about for at least a week and over a month in two cases.
The Government has already come under repeated fire for being too slow to act on stopping infected people coming into the country and bringing new variants, as well as for implementing mass testing and lockdown rules.
And this suggests that the efforts being made now to stop the South African variant are too little, too late.
Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said today: ‘In the Commons we asked for these timelines as ministers must be fully transparent.
‘These cases identified across eight different areas suggest wide community transmission and there are serious questions as to why extra testing has only been put in now.
‘The lessons of previous mass testing initiatives is that without financial support to help people isolate, we’re fighting the virus with one hand tied behind our backs.’
In Walsall, in the West Midlands, the ‘surge testing’ has come six weeks after the community transmission case was known about.
Public health director for the borough, Stephen Gunther, said yesterday that the only case of the variant without travel links was found in December, the BBC reported.
Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading, told MailOnline: ‘I would like to think that they’ve done a really thorough job of trying to find the connection between travel to South Africa but I don’t know that.
‘I am surprised that it’s taken that long – that’s quite a long time and in that five weeks the virus could have been circulating in those parts of the country.’
People were banned from travelling into the UK from South Africa on December 24 in a bid to contain the variant, but cases have been found all over the world.
The variant has sprung up in countries that didn’t have travel bans until recently, including the Netherlands, France, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium, the US and other European, African and Asian nations.
Ministers have been ramping up the fear factor of the new coronavirus variants in past weeks with surprise announcements and concerning data.
Sir Patrick Vallance said in January that the Kent variant appeared to be up to 30 per cent more deadly than its predecessor.
PHE has said that it had found 11 cases in Bristol where the Kent variant had also gathered a worrying mutation normally found in the South African strain.
And there are also fears that vaccines will be less effective against that mutation – named E484K – because it changes the shape of the virus’s spike protein.
Critics have slammed the Government for failing to act in time.
Labour MP for Sefton in Merseyside said in a tweet yesterday: ‘Boris Johnson has ignored scientific advice again. This time over the South African variant.
‘He was warned 2 weeks ago to shut the borders completely or to quarantine travellers to the UK. So far he has done neither. Yet again he has delayed and failed to protect lives.’
Bath’s Dr Yates added: ‘Without mandated quarantining of arrivals from all destinations, cases were always likely to slip through the net and head into the community to unknowingly infect others.
‘Banning direct travel from South Africa on the 24th of December was never likely to make much of a difference.
‘We know that people don’t always take the most direct route when they travel from A to B. There were, and still are, plenty of ways in which people carrying the South African variant could enter the country. It’s another half measure.
‘Either we should be instituting managed isolation for everyone who comes into the country or no-one, there’s no point in doing half the job.’
There are also concerns that the door-to-door testing programme could actually even spread the disease while it’s trying to stop it.
In some local authorities, police, council and NHS workers are dropping off swab kits to people’s homes so they can test themselves and send it in the post.
But Professor Brendan Wren, an infectious disease expert at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, wrote in the Daily Mail: ‘I’m afraid the surge testing of people in eight particular postcodes where cases have been identified is likely to be futile.
‘Colleagues tell me there were at least 50 cases across the country two weeks ago.
‘Given that only a fraction of new Covid strains have been fully DNA-sequenced in the lab, the variant genie is well and truly out of the bottle.
‘The door-to-door testing is a highly visible way to encourage people to stay indoors, but I fear it could come at a cost.
‘During a pandemic, it seems unwise (to say the least) to employ people to go from one house to the next, potentially spreading the very disease they are trying to constrain.’
Dr Simon Clarke said there was a small risk of this but it wasn’t particularly worrying, adding: ‘If people are socially distanced and observe good hygiene and are trained in how to handle the swab properly, then the risk should be minimal.
‘But, having done a Covid test myself in a drive-through centre, it won’t be like doing it sealed in your own car, where they literally throw things at you through the passenger window.’
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE SOUTH AFRICAN VARIANT?
Real name: B.1.351
When was it discovered? Nelson Mandela Bay, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, in mid-December.
What mutations does it have? The South African variant carries 21 mutations, some of which change the shape of the spike protein on its outside. The two worrying alterations are known as E484K and N501Y.
Why is it causing panic? N501Y appears to make it better able to stick to the cells inside the body and makes it more likely to cause infection and faster to spread. This is the same mutation found on the Kent variant, which is at least 50 per cent more infectious than regular Covid.
The variant has mutations on its spike protein which scientists fear will make it difficult for the immune system to recognise, even in vaccinated people
Scientists believe E484K may be associated with an ability to evade parts of the immune system called antibodies. Researchers suspect this is the case because strains with this mutation have been shown to reinfect people who caught and beat older versions of Covid.
How many people have caught it in the UK? At least 143 Brits have been infected with this variant, though the number is likely to be far higher because PHE is only testing random positive samples.
Will it affect vaccines? So far Pfizer and Moderna’s jabs appear only slightly less effective against the South African variant. Researchers took blood samples from vaccinated patients and exposed them to an engineered virus with the worrying mutations found on the South African variant.
They found there was a noticeable reduction in the production of antibodies, which are virus-fighting proteins made in the blood after vaccination or natural infection, but still enough to kill off the mutant strain.
There are still concerns about how effective a single dose of vaccine will be against the strain. So far Pfizer and Moderna’s studies have only looked at how people given two doses react to the South African variant,
Studies into Oxford University/AstraZeneca‘s jab and the South African strain are still ongoing.
Johnson & Johnson confirmed that its single shot jab blocked 57 per cent of coronavirus infections in South Africa, which meets the World Health Organization’s 50 per cent efficacy threshold.