Surge testing has begun in South Gloucestershire after cases of the Manaus variant of coronavirus – a new strain that may spread more rapidly and may respond less well to existing vaccines – were discovered.
Residents who live in five postcode areas, who are aged over 16 and do not have symptoms of Covid-19, have been invited to come forward for testing.
People who travel into the areas – BS32 0, BS32 8, BS32 9, BS34 5 and BS34 6 – for work or to visit someone they are in a support bubble with are also able to have a test.
The identified postcode areas fall within Bradley Stoke, Patchway and Little Stoke – and are different to those who were part of the previous community surge testing programme in February.
Drive-in testing sites opened at Stoke Gifford Parkway Park & Ride, as well as The Mall Coach Park at The Mall Cribbs Causeway, at 9am on Monday.
People were also able to collect a test kit from walk-in sites in the area.
Sara Blackmore, director of Public Health at South Gloucestershire Council, told the PA news agency that only a small amount of information about the two cases could be given to protect their identity.
“What I can say is it’s travel related, and it’s a contained issue, and the risk to the community is low,” she said.
“We’re assured on that front based on the rapid and thorough work that was carried out by Public Health England on Friday and the additional information we continue to monitor.”
Variants of Covid-19 can be identified as variants of interest or variants of concern, which is how the strain first noted in Manaus, Brazil – known as P.1 – is classified.
Ms Blackmore said: “This particular variant is one where there’s a potential for increased transmissibility and a potential for an impact on the efficacy of the vaccine, so that’s clearly why we need to act quickly.
“That said, there isn’t a huge amount of data on it. So all of the work that we’re doing here, in terms of gathering information, helps the science and helps us get a clearer picture.”
Around 30,000 people have been identified as being eligible for the asymptomatic testing in South Gloucestershire.
In February, 20% of those eligible for similar testing following the identification of the Bristol variant came forward.
Ms Blackmore added: “I’d be really pleased if we saw a similar proportion again this time.
“We’re looking for that sort of turnout again and are really grateful for residents to be stepping up and supporting us.
“If people are asymptomatic and come forward for testing, it helps us and helps build a picture in the science community.
“People need to be reassured that whatever the variant, the way the virus spreads is the same, and people need to continue to do more of the same in terms of hands, face, space.
“If they’re identified as positive through this testing, further genome sequencing will be carried out and we’ll act quickly but public health action is in place and we’re here to support the community.”
The testing programme is expected to run for one week, ending on March 7, with the facilities open each day.
It is in addition to testing for people who have symptoms, and regular asymptomatic testing for essential workers.
People will be tested through PCR swabs, which are analysed in laboratories, rather than lateral flow tests.
Public Health England has identified three cases of the variant of concern first noted in Manaus, Brazil.
Two are from one household in South Gloucestershire with a history of travel to Brazil. The third is a currently unlinked case in England.