Mass coronavirus testing is to start immediately for all secondary school pupils in parts of London, Essex and Kent amid growing rates of the disease in the capital, health secretary Matt Hancock has announced.
The move came as London MPs were briefed on the likely move of the capital from tier 2 to the toughest tier 3 level of Covid-19 restrictions next week, while Mayor Sadiq Khan said the city was at “a tipping point”.
Health minister Helen Whately said in a phone call with MPs that no final decision would be made until the planned review of tiers across England on 16 December.
But she left no doubt that strong consideration was being given to tightened restrictions, shutting down pubs and restaurants just days before Christmas, after cases in the capital rose to 191 per 100,000 last week, up from 158 seven days earlier.
She is understood to have rejected as “unworkable” pleas from Tory MPs for outer London to be kept in the lower tier, where hospitality venues can serve alcohol with a “substantial meal”.
Speaking at a 10 Downing Street press conference, Mr Hancock said that after a fall during the England-wide lockdown which ended last week, the number of Covid-19 cases “has flattened off and is rising in some parts of the country”, with particular concerns in London and areas bordering it in Essex and Kent.
He said he would not pre-empt the decision to be made next Wednesday, but said that he had decided to act because of “worrying rises” in daily data for 11- to 18-year-olds, particularly in northeast London.
Meanwhile, all secondary schools and further education colleges in Wales are to move classes online from Monday as part of an effort to drive down a resurge in coronavirus infections.
Welsh education minister Kirsty Williams said: “The virus is putting our health service under significant and sustained pressure and it is important we all make a contribution to reduce its transmission.”
There was no immediate information on the precise areas of London, Essex and Kent to be targeted for mass testing
Mobile testing centres will be deployed in the areas, initially using PCR tests to identify and isolate infected teens, with rapid-turnaround lateral flow tests added later, said Mr Hancock.
“We must not wait until the review which will take place on 16 December, we need to take a targeted action immediately,” he said.
“We’ll be working with schools and local authorities to encourage these children and families to get tested over the coming days.
“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, irrespective of whether they have symptoms.”
The weekly rate of new Covid-19 cases in the London borough of Havering has risen above 400 cases per 100,000 people, making it the eighth highest rate in England, the latest data shows.
A total of 1,040 new cases were recorded in Havering in the seven days to 6 December – the equivalent of 400.7 cases per 100,000, up from 290.1 the previous week. Along with Havering, three other London boroughs are now among the top 20 highest rates in England: Barking & Dagenham (333.5, up from 268.7); Waltham Forest (327.1, up from 214.5); and Redbridge (310.3, up from 308.3).
Mr Khan welcomed the mass testing, which he said came after repeated requests for help in the worst-hit areas of the city. “We have seen before how the virus moves from younger age groups to older groups and with the change in restrictions for Christmas approaching, it is vitally important that we are able to identify who has the virus so they can self-isolate," said the mayor.
“Nobody wants the capital to face tier 3 restrictions, but with cases rising, we face a tipping point. That’s why it’s important that the government is providing this much-needed testing support and it is essential that Londoners continue to follow the rules to reduce the spread of the virus.”
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty made clear tier 3 was a possibility for London, warning: “We need to look very seriously at these areas and ask the question, ‘Are there enough measures or do we have to have more?’ And that’s something ministers will have to look at next week.”
And former Public Health England regional director John Ashton said: “Deaths will start going up during the Christmas period and new year unless something is done.
“London could become a super spreader, sending coronavirus to other parts of the country over Christmas and making a third wave of infections likely in January.”
The health secretary told the Downing Street press briefing: “As of today, we’re vaccinating in 73 hospitals across the UK and tens of thousands of people have had the jab.
“I can confirm that we will shortly expand our vaccination programme further to 10 more locations in England and from next week we plan to begin vaccinations in GP-led sites and vaccinate in care homes by Christmas.
“We will keep on expanding this rollout to reach more and more people.
“As more vaccines come on stream, we will open vaccination centres in larger centres like conference halls and sports stadia next year and that’s when most people can expect to get their jabs.
“When the time comes, the NHS will get in touch with you, so you don’t have to come forward and get in contact with the NHS.”
Mr Hancock said there would be no relaxation of coronavirus restrictions over new year, of a kind planned for five days over Christmas, when up to three households will be allowed to gather to celebrate.
Asked if people would be able to spend New Year’s Eve with close family members, Mr Hancock said: “Yes, if you live with them in your household, but we are not bringing in a special set of rules for new year as we have for Christmas.”
He added: “We have got to be careful and let’s not blow it, especially with the vaccine on the horizon.”
The government today removed the Canary Islands from its coronavirus “travel corridors” list, meaning anyone arriving from the popular sunshine destination from 12 December will have to self-isolate for 14 days.
The decision came as it emerged that EU coronavirus rules will bar all non-essential visits by UK citizens to its 27 member states from 1 January, when Brexit comes into effect.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies