Lancashire has 'no cases' of South African Covid variant

There have been no confirmed cases of the South African variant of coronavirus in Lancashire - either with or without travel links to the country.

By Paul Faulkner
Tuesday, 2nd February 2021, 2:33 pm
Updated Tuesday, 2nd February 2021, 4:03 pm

It emerged on Monday that infections caused by the mutated strain had been identified in part of Southport, where door-to-door testing is about to begin in an attempt to find any other cases and stop its spread.

Sefton was one of eight areas of England where a total of 11 incidences of the variant have been found in people with no known connection to South Africa. Lancashire did not feature on that list.

However, the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) can reveal that none of the 94 other cases of the variant so far identified across the country - and where a link to South Africa has been established - are based in Lancashire either.

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It is also understood that no South African variant cases have been found in the Blackpool or Blackburn with Darwen council areas.

The PR9 postcode area of Sefton, where the mutated virus has been discovered, does straddle the border with West Lancashire - specifically the village of Banks. But the LDRS understands that the identified cases are all on the Sefton side of the administrative divide.

Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi, Lancashire County Council’s director of public health, has nevertheless urged caution.

"We are not aware of any confirmed cases of this variant in Lancashire, but we are monitoring the situation, including in other parts of the country.

"Our general Covid advice remains the same. People still need to take care, and reduce the risk to themselves and the people they care about.

"Please get a Covid-19 test if you are concerned about your health, even if you aren't showing the classic symptoms, as other symptoms have been reported.

"Stay at home as much as you can and remember to follow the guidelines - and please get the vaccine when you're offered it."

There is no evidence at this stage that the South African variant causes any more severe disease than other Covid-19 strains.

However, it is more transmissible than older variants and there have been indications that it could reduce the effectiveness of the vaccines that have so far been developed in the fight against the pandemic - although they would still offer a good degree of protection.

A trial of the yet-to-be-approved Novavax vaccine found that its efficacy against the South Africa variant was only 60 percent - compared to 95 percent against the original Covid-19 and 86 percent against the variant associated with Kent, which is now the dominant one in the UK.

South Ribble MP Katherine Fletcher, whose constituency covers Banks, said that there was a “theoretical risk” of the South African variant ending up in Lancashire - but that it was not an inevitability.

She told the LDRS that the sampling of Covid-positive tests in order to seek out the mutation - a process reportedly being carried out on between five and 10 percent of swabs - was potentially an effective way of preventing its spread.

“The numbers are small and that’s the point - to keep them tiny.

“When they are testing people for Covid, they are checking [for the variant] and if they find it, they are doing really thorough contact tracing. People aren't traveling much at the moment, so that makes it quite easy.

“The mass community testing [in PR9 and elsewhere in the UK] is about really covering the bases - and making sure, say, nothing accidental has happened on the door of the local shop, [something that couldn't be identified] via contact tracing.

“It’s not that they are ignoring [other contacts] in the workplace or during commuting - they are doing that through contact tracing and then they are just [going further] with blanket action in tight geographic areas.

“The issue comes if that effort then discovers a lot more cases of the variant - that’s different,” explained Ms. Fletcher, who studied biology at university.

In the Commons on Tuesday, she asked health secretary Matt Hancock for “reassurance and advice” for residents in Banks about how they could fulfil a desire to “do the right thing”.

Mr. Hancock said that the Sefton Council website sets out exactly where the door-to-door testing will be carried out.

He added: “If you are in the PR9 is very important to be especially vigilant and it is imperative to stay at home unless it is absolutely essential that you leave home.

“I do understand the concern, but the reason that we have been so clear that these are the postcode areas is because we do need people to take that action to limit community spread in the vicinity of the cases that we have found.”

Sefton Council said that testing kits are due to be distributed to homes in PR9 from Wednesday, when a new mobile testing unit will also open in the borough.

The council’s director of public health, Margaret Jones, said: “Finding cases of the new South African Covid-19 variant and reducing the number of people who could be exposed to it is vital, which is why we are focusing testing facilities on the area and trying to make it as easy as possible for people to get tested.

“Anyone over 16 within the area can go along and get tested without an appointment and I would urge them to do so as soon as possible so we can nip any spread of the new variant in the bud.”

Dominic Harrison, director of public health and wellbeing at Blackburn with Darwen Council, said: “We have no evidence of the South African variant in Blackburn with Darwen .

"I fully support the government's urgent action in those areas where it has been identified. We need to identify all cases - symptomatic or asymptomatic - and stop continued community transmission.

"The presence of this variant in the North West region does, however, mean that we now need to be even more vigilant in sticking to the lockdown rules, get tested if we have any symptoms and self-isolate if required.”