Mass testing will be rolled out for secondary school children in coronavirus hotspots across London, Essex and Kent, the health secretary has announced.
Matt Hancock said he was “concerned” the number of COVID-19 cases in those places was “rising and in many areas already high”, and that “by far the fastest rise” is among 11 to 18-years-olds.
While infection rates in adults living there are “broadly flat”, he said “we know from experience” that a sharp rise in cases among young people “can lead to” the virus spreading into the elderly and vulnerable population.
“We must not wait until the review” next Wednesday when the tier restrictions system is reviewed, Mr Hancock said.
“We need to take targeted action immediately.”
He explained mass testing will therefore be available to all secondary school-age children in the seven worst-affected boroughs in the capital, as well as parts of Essex that border London and areas of Kent.
Mr Hancock said not specify the London boroughs or the areas of Essex and Kent.
But, according to London Assembly statistics for the week ending 5 December, the seven boroughs with the highest COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population were:
- Havering – 380
- Waltham Forest – 322
- Barking and Dagenham – 315
- Redbridge – 300
- Newham – 266
- Bexley – 261
- Tower Hamlets – 242
“We want to keep schools open, because that’s both right for education and public health,” the health secretary added.
“I want to urge all those involved to step forward for the testing. It’s important that 11 to 18-year-olds get tested in these boroughs.”
Mr Hancock also revealed that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is being administered in 73 hospitals.
The jab will be available in some GPs’ surgeries from next week and in care homes before Christmas, he promised.
It comes after another 20,964 coronavirus cases were recorded on Thursday – a rise of 4,386 compared to Wednesday’s figure.
It is the highest daily rise since mid-November – and brings the total number of infections during the pandemic to 1,787,783.
Another 516 coronavirus-related deaths were also reported in the latest 24-hour period – a slight fall of 17 compared to the previous day.
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ANALYSIS: “Don’t blow it!”
By Rob Powell, political correspondent
A simple wake up call from the health secretary in a week where Brexit and the vaccination rollout has shifted attention from the actual virus.
Cases appear to be rising again with a focus now on London and parts of the South East. Mass testing for teenagers will be the immediate response.
An eventual move to tier three now also seems inevitable.
That will be a blow for bars and restaurants keen to cash in on pre-Christmas trade.
But combine the increasing case rate with the Christmas amnesty on restrictions, and you have a potentially catastrophic cocktail.
The risk is that Londoners travelling out of the capital for the festive reprieve take the virus with them, exporting it around the country.
Or as the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said: “If people go too far in the Christmas period, then it’s going to be a period of risk everywhere.”
Put that alongside the seasonal nature of coronaviruses, the usual NHS winter pressures and a possible no-deal Brexit, and January starts to look increasingly daunting.
Our gaze may have shifted from COVID-19 this week.
It still has its sights set firmly on us.
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