health

Covid: two schools tested as health officials battle to contain Omicron variant


At schools, a church and a branch of KFC, public health officials have been scrambling to track people infected by Omicron, in a stiff new test of the UK’s widely criticised £37bn test-and-trace programme.

On Monday, new cases of the Covid “variant of concern” emerged in two London locations, bringing the running UK total to 11, and testing was launched at a school in West Bridgford in Nottinghamshire and at Larchwood primary school in Brentwood, where one class was sent home. Customers, staff and delivery drivers at the KFC in the Essex town’s high street last Friday afternoon were also urged to get tests, as were the congregation of the nearby Trinity church.

The Essex case is linked to one in Nottingham and travel in southern Africa. Two separate cases were announced in Camden and Wandsworth in London, both with links to travel to South Africa, after a case was detected in Westminster, and four further cases have been found in Lanarkshire and two more in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde areas of Scotland. None of the Scottish cases have any travel history, said Scotland’s deputy first minister, John Swinney, suggesting community transmission is under way.

The push to track the spread of the virus is casting renewed focus on the test-and-trace scheme, which Boris Johnson promised would be “world-beating”.

Only half of the UK’s main laboratories used for community testing are currently capable of detecting the Omicron variant with a test that shows whether a key “S” gene is missing, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said. The Essex director of public health, Dr Michael Gogarty, said on Monday that it took seven days to receive confirmation of its case after the person noticed symptoms and was tested on 20 November. They are said to be unwell, but not seriously.

Illustrating how long the new variant has been in the UK, Gogarty said the Essex case caught it from another person, who in turn caught it from someone who arrived from southern Africa about two weeks ago. One factor making detection harder is that only a minority of people with Covid symptoms typically request a test – just 18%, according to a study by academics at King’s College London earlier this year.

Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of UKHSA, said on Monday it was “critical that anyone with Covid-19 symptoms isolates and gets a PCR test immediately”. It said it should take between 24 and 48 hours to get a PCR result and an additional 24 hours to determine whether it is likely they have Omicron. A final confirmation could take another two days, bringing the whole process to up to five days.

Official data shows turnaround times for PCR tests have been getting worse in England. Only 68% of in-person test results were received within 24 hours in the latest week, down from 77% the previous week.

UKHSA, which is overseeing testing and tracing Omicron cases, said all “close contacts of suspected and confirmed Omicron cases will have samples priority-tested for S-gene target failure and will also have whole-genome sequencing”. Suspected cases of the new variant will be routed to laboratories that could run the genetic tests, and it is “rapidly developing and rolling out a genotyping assay to give an early indication of a probable variant case” to labs that don’t yet have the capacity.

Total UK PCR testing capacity has fallen from 900,000 a day in mid-October to just over 700,000 a day last week. It follows the suspension of testing at a lab run by Immensa after it emerged that 43,000 people may have been given incorrect negative PCR tests. However, before Omicron arrived, the system had capacity to process about 250,000 more tests a day than were needed.

Asked about the preparedness of the test-and-trace system, one director of public health in the north of England said that while Omicron’s transmissibility in a highly vaccinated population remained unclear, “we are in pretty good shape”.

From 4am on Tuesday passengers arriving in the UK will be required to take a PCR test by the end of their second day from entry and isolate until they receive a negative test. UKHSA said it was trying to find out how many private travel testing laboratories, relied upon to check all international arrivals, would be able to test for Omicron.



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