MORE than 190 people attended a virtual emergency meeting about the outbreak of the South African variant in the Frankley Great Park area.
The get-together, held on Microsoft Teams, was hosted by Coun Simon Morrall and featured Birmingham City Council’s Director of Public Health Dr Justin Varney.
Dr Varney gave a short presentation about the variant which is not considered more dangerous than the usual Covid-19 strain but, similar to the Kent (UK) Variant, is more infectious.
Precautionary measures – frequent hand-washing, face mask wearing and social distancing – will still stop the spread, as they do with the original virus.
With regard to vaccine efficacy, Dr Varney said the South African variant was shown to reduce the efficacy both the Pfizer BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca jabs (post the two doses) from 95 per cent full protection to 85 per cent. But he stressed the vaccine does still work well against the strain.
“Whereas 95 in 100 people have full vaccine protection and five per cent have partial protection that reduces to 85 and 15 with the South African strain.
“To put it into context, the flu vaccine has a 40 to 60 per cent efficacy.”
He confirmed two people had tested positive for the South African Variant and no link to foreign travel could be found which is why there were concerns about the outbreak and potentially a larger spread in the Frankley, Great Park and Northfield (around Tessall Lane) areas.
Dr Varney said they had now joined other areas, including parts of Walsall, Surrey, Liverpool and Bristol, as part of the nationwide ‘Operation Eagle’, specifically set up to address other variants of the virus.
The designated ‘red zone’ area where people are being urged to get tested was set up as the pair who tested positive for the South African strain had not ventured outside that area.
People over 18 inside the red zone and with no symptoms should get tested in the coming days if they have not already – the reason under 18s are not being tested is because those attending school will be tested there.
To facilitate more testing a new centre is being set up on the Empire Cinema car park which will be open from 10am to 4pm tomorrow and Sunday and between 8am and 4pm from Monday to Friday.
The St Modwen drive through test centre opposite Bournville College – also open from 8am to 4pm – tested 650 people yesterday and even more today after capacity was stepped up.
People going to test centres are urged to take along a pen, their phone and some hand sanitiser as they will have to provide details.
Home testing kits can now also be picked up from the Hollymoor Centre – that opened at midday today and already 770 tests have been collected.
They must be returned to the centre within 24 hours between Monday and Thursday to correspond with the laboratory times.
It is important that the tests are carried out at those designated centres as the positive results (returned in one to two days) will be tested for the South African variant. That will take ten days to determine.
Anyone who has contracted the South African variant will be called by NHS Test and Trace to ascertain where they have been and who they have come into contact with.
In the next three days, however, the case numbers for the area in the red zone will indicate whether the South African variant has had an impact – case numbers were dropping in the area prior to the discovery and any soar would suggest the strain had spread.
Door-to-door testing will also be carried out from Monday, February 8, for the more elderly and vulnerable residents.
Concerns were raised about bogus callers exploiting the situation. Northfield MP Gary Sambrook said he would speak to police about stepping up patrols in the area to check people going door-to-door were legitimate and dropping off tests.
Those dropping off tests will be wearing Birmingham City Council tabards and have ID.
People who have symptoms should be tested separately by calling the NHS 119 number.
Anyone who tests positive must self-isolate but while awaiting results can go about their usual business – going to work, attending medical appointments and, if in the priority groups, going for vaccinations.
Further testing hubs will be set up at the start of next week with businesses being offered testing kits so they can test employees.
Schools and the community and voluntary sector have also been briefed today about the variant and the council’s public health team will speak to the city’s businesses next week.
Other measures include Covid Marshals being redeployed to shopping areas to ensure people to follow the rules and stem any increased risk at stores.
Question and Answer session
Nicola Suciu from the Rubery Community Group asked about whether Rubery should have been included in the ‘red zone’ as a lot of people from Frankley, the Great Park and Northfield shop or go to work there.
Dr Varney said with regard to shopping and workplaces, usual precautionary measures ‘hands, face, space’ should stop any spread so people will be safe if those rules were followed.
Coun Adrian Kriss asked if there was the possibility the strain could be a new variant which had mutated locally, exactly the same as the South African Variant.
Dr Varney said because of the magnitude of the DNA code and the exact changes it had undertaken meant it was highly unlikely and it was the South African variant.
Concerns were raised about a company which imported items from the Netherlands and it was asked whether it could have come from imported items or drivers.
Dr Varney said the virus seldom spread on inanimate objects and drivers – as part of the new Brexit border checks – were tested when entering the company.
One dad asked if he could still take his son to nursery (in West Heath) or should he stay in the local area.
Dr Varney said it was fine for him and others to do that.
Another person asked about the accuracy of the Lateral Flow Tests.
Dr Varney said the Lateral Flow Tests were used more to show how infectious people were which was why they were a valuable tool for schools. They were not so effective before or after the infectious stage. He said overall they were 90 per cent effective.
He added PCR tests were being used – rather than Lateral Flow – as they were better at showing if people had Coronavirus or not.
“You cannot compare them directly as they do different things.”
Former Northfield MP Richard Burden, now chairman of the watchdog Birmingham and Solihull Healthwatch which represents patients, urged people to contact the organisation to give feedback about how the pandemic and any aspects of it were being dealt with.
Healthwatch Birmingham and Solihull can be emailed at email@example.com or called on 0800 652 5278.
Coun Morrall closed the meeting by urging everyone to ‘step up to the plate’ and get tested – if they had not already – so the area could get the virus under control and set an example of how tackling an outbreak like this should be done.