Army to be deployed in North West to assist with surge testing

·5 min read

The army will be deployed in parts of the North West of England to help with surge testing efforts to combat the Indian variant, the Prime Minister has said.

There will also be “targeted new activity” in Bolton and Blackburn to accelerate the vaccine rollout, Boris Johnson said.

Surge testing is under way in the region where cases involving the Indian variant of coronavirus are on the increase.

The latest data on the India variant shows the number of cases in the UK has risen from 520 last week to 1,313 this week.

The “variant of concern” has been detected in Bolton, Greater Manchester, as well as in Blackburn, Lancashire, and Sefton in Merseyside, which have all seen rates rise rapidly.

Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Mr Johnson warned those living in Bolton and other affected areas that “there is now a greater risk from this new variant” as he urged people to be “extra cautious”.

“Our best chance of suppressing this variant is to clamp down on it where it is and we will be throwing everything we can at this task,” he said.

Mr Johnson said Colonel Russ Miller, Commander of the North West Region, will be “deployed to support local leaders in managing the response on the ground”.

He told the press conference: “There will be surge testing, with mobile testing units, and the army will be on the streets handing out tests.

“And there will be targeted new activity in Bolton and Blackburn to accelerate vaccine take-up among eligible cohorts – including longer opening hours at vaccination sites.”

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The second dose of the vaccine will also be brought forward from 12 to eight weeks for those aged over-50 so more people have the highest level of protection sooner.

Other activity in Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen includes extending pop-up vaccination sites and increasing the vaccination capacity of local pharmacies.

There will also be a increased community engagement programme to ensure as many people as possible accept the vaccine, take regular tests and comply with self-isolation rules if they return a positive result.

Enhanced contact tracing and genomic sequencing to identify the variant is also being deployed across many parts of the North West.

Blackburn with Darwen Council initially said on Thursday that it would be offering vaccines to all over-18s from next week following the increase in cases, but later said that, although additional vaccine clinics are being set up, the jab will only be offered to those eligible under current Government guidance.

The area’s director of public health, Professor Dominic Harrison, said on Twitter that the authority had asked the NHS to “surge vaccinate” but the request was refused.

He tweeted: “At the moment the Indian variant is surging in a small number of #localgov areas.

“These areas have a window of opportunity to control the wider spread across the UK by a mixture of community engagement, surge testing and surge vaccination.

“If the Government stops areas with high #IndianVariant cases from ‘surge vaccinating’ target areas (which will contribute to reduced transmission) – it will reduce our local capacity to control spread.”

In Bolton, the area with the highest rate of cases, with 553 new infections in the seven days to May 9, mobile testing units have been deployed and door-to-door PCR Covid testing has been offered to 22,000 residents.

A vaccine bus has been set up to increase uptake among those who are eligible and a rapid response team of 100 nurses, public health advisers and environmental health officers has been sent in.

In the affluent Formby area of Sefton, new drive-through and walk-through test centres were set up on Friday, specifically to identify the Indian variant.

HEALTH Coronavirus HotSpots
(PA Graphics)

Sefton’s director of public health Margaret Jones said: “Working with Public Health England, in response to a localised outbreak of infections and cases of the variant first identified in India, we have identified sites for test centres in and around Formby.

“We are encouraging everyone aged over 16 who lives, works or studies in Formby to attend one of these dedicated local test sites, once they are open.

“Anyone who has visited any venue in Formby over the last two weeks is also welcome to be tested at these test sites.”

Speaking on Sky News, Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said younger people in areas where there is a surge of the variant could be vaccinated sooner.

He said: “The clinicians will look at all of this to see how we can flex the vaccination programme to make it as effective as possible to deal with this surge in this variant, the B1617.2.

“They will make those decisions and we will be ready to implement.”

The DHSC said £2 million in funding had been agreed to pilot a scheme in the Greater Manchester region to encourage people to comply with self-isolation rules if they test positive.

The programme will include “support and engagement teams” to work with households within 24 hours of a positive test to develop a personalised plan for their self-isolation.

Surge testing was also announced in Hackney, north-east London, on Friday after cases of both the India variant and the South Africa variant were detected.

Everyone who lives or works within targeted areas in Shoreditch and Dalston should take a test.