Door-to-door coronavirus testing is being launched in Surrey after two people with no known travel links to South Africa tested positive for a variant that emerged there.
Residents in the Goldsworth Park and St Johns areas of Woking will be asked to take a COVID test whether or not they are showing symptoms, as part of the localised “surge testing” programme, Surrey county council said.
The programme will be extended into Egham in the coming days, and the Surrey Local Resilience Forum has urged people to stay calm as the tests are rolled out.
The UK has banned travel from South Africa and its neighbouring countries amid concern over the new virus variant.
The variant – known as VOC-202012/02 – is believed to be more infectious, though there is no evidence that it causes more severe illness.
Experts have raised fears that COVID vaccines may not be fully effective against it.
A total of 105 cases of the South Africa variant have been found to date in the UK.
Watch: Vaccines might be less effective against South Africa variant
Ruth Hutchinson, director of public health for Surrey, said: “This is a precautionary measure – the more cases of the variant we find, the better chance we have at stopping it from spreading further.
“By playing your part and taking the test, you’ll be helping to keep your community and your loved ones safe.
“It’s really important to say that there is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness, so you don’t need to worry.”
Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, warned that the discovery might mean the variant is more widespread than thought.
He said: “This variant not only appears to spread rapidly, but there is emerging evidence to suggest that it is less susceptible to immunity induced by the current crop of vaccines.
“The discovery of a handful of cases with no links to travel to Africa indicates that it might be more widespread in the community than previously thought.”
Dr Alison Barnett, regional director at Public Health England South East, said: “The UK has one of the best genomic systems in the world which has allowed us to detect the variant originating in South Africa here in Surrey. I urge everyone offered a test to take it up to help us to monitor the virus in our communities and to help suppress and control the spread of this variant.
“The most important thing is that people continue to follow the guidance that is in place – limit your number of contacts, wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, keep your distance and cover your face. If you test positive by any method, you must isolate to stop the spread of the virus.”
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds, responding to the news that two South African variant cases were detected in Surrey, said: “Deeply worrying & shows the UK Govmt’s quarantine system isn’t working-UK is exposed to virus mutations with around 21,000 people arriving every day.
“Conservative MPs must vote with @UKLabour today to secure our borders against Covid & help stop vaccine progress being undermined.”
On Sunday, Public Health England’s Dr Susan Hopkins said it was “reassuring news” that the Janssen and Novamax COVID vaccines are effective against the variant identified in South Africa.
She told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “The Janssen vaccine and the Novamax suggest that it was at least 60% [effective] against the South African variant, so I think that is reassuring news.
“I think that we will learn more about these vaccinations as we start rolling them out more widely in the population.”
She said she expected all the vaccines to have similar levels of effectiveness against variants like the South African one.
She added: “I think it’s hard to imagine how the different vaccines won’t have similar levels of effectiveness, I think they would have at least 50%, maybe even more.
“We clearly will need to study all of them in terms of looking at how they respond to the population in South Africa, where I know there are a number of studies going on at the moment.”
Wei Shen Lim, chair of COVID immunisation on Britain’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said in mid-January that Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine trials had been conducted in South Africa that will examine whether the vaccine will protect against the new variant.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is also reported to be effective against the South African strain, though to a lesser efficacy than the initial strain.
Boris Johnson said on a visit to a vaccine centre in Batley, West Yorkshire: "We're confident that all the vaccines we're using provide a high degree of immunity and protection against all variants.
"The interesting and exiting thing about... the vaccines we're developing is increasingly, they're capable of being adapted to deal with new variants as they arise.”
Watch: What UK government COVID-19 support is available?