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Sewage tests as Herts works to contain spread of South African variant

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"Be focused, not fearful" is the message from Hertfordshire's director of public health, Professor Jim McManus, as the county council works to contain the spread of a new coronavirus variant.

A Broxbourne resident is recovering after testing positive for the South African mutation, thought to be more contagious, prompting concerns that it is spreading in the community.

It has been detected in eight local authority areas across London, Surrey, Kent, Southport in Merseyside and Walsall in the West Midlands as well as Hertfordshire.

Coronavirus variants (44214454)
Coronavirus variants (44214454)

Previous cases have been linked with travel to South Africa, but random tests carried out by Public Health England have identified 11 cases which cannot.

Prof McManus said that a detailed case history and contact tracing were being carried out for the affected Herts patient and a programme to "surge test" 10,000 residents in the affected EN10 postcode neighbourhood was rolling out. At the same time, waste water or sewage in the area is being analysed to check for the new variant.

Along with the public health directors in the other affected areas, Prof McManus briefed Health Secretary Matt Hancock at 4pm on Monday (Feb 1) before the minister gave a national press conference at 5pm.

Herts director of public health Jim McManus, left, and Cllr Tim Hutchings, Herts County Council executive member for public health and protection (44214413)
Herts director of public health Jim McManus, left, and Cllr Tim Hutchings, Herts County Council executive member for public health and protection (44214413)

He said the operation now swinging into action in Broxbourne had two aims: to establish how widespread circulation of the mutated virus was and then to contain it.

Prof McManus said: "The Secretary of State has said he wants us to attempt to eradicate the virus and we will do our level best to do that."

He said that the more variants that existed, the greater the risk that one would become resistant to treatment and vaccines, and the geographic spread of cases unrelated to South African travel was troubling.

He said: "It is a concern that it has appeared in quite so many places at once – we have to take that as a concern. It's a sign that the virus has spread.

"To say this is a rapidly evolving situation is an understatement, " he added, as he explained the three-pronged testing regime under way in Herts which will help "write the playbook" for future containment exercises.

Residents are being offered the chance to visit a test centre, pick up a kit to use themselves at home and doorstep swabbing by health professionals with the hope that at least 50% of the 10,000 people being targeted in Broxbourne will participate.

Cllr Tim Hutchings, Herts County Council's cabinet member for public health and prevention, said anyone who tests positive for coronavirus as a result of the exercise will be expected to self-isolate and the county was willing to review its £2m support fund for those suffering financial hardship as a result. However, he said there was no expectation that large numbers of people were likely to be infected.

Prof McManus said: "We absolutely do not want people to be frightened. Be focused on preventing spread, not frightened about a new variant."

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