By Daniel Holland LDRS

The government has announced that Newcastle, Gateshead, Northumberland, County Durham, Sunderland, North Tyneside, and South Tyneside will soon be rolling out “enhanced community testing programmes” as part of efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The decision was effectively confirming that ministers have now approved previously-announced plans from the region’s councils for the deployment of tens of thousands of quick-turnaround lateral flow tests.

As reported last week, those proposals include using rapid tests to safely allow people back into football stadiums, cinemas, theatres, and hospitality venues – as well as other cultural and sporting attractions.

But, with people still banned from those venues while the region is in Tier 3 and the logistics of using the tests for those purposes still being worked out, it is expected that the North East’s most vulnerable communities will be the first to get mass asymptomatic testing early in the new year.

That will mean pop-up rapid test centres being established in different parts of the region – such as areas with high BAME or elderly populations that are at greater risk from the virus, or communities where an outbreak has been identified.

Details on dates, locations, and the number of tests available have not yet been confirmed.

North East public health officials have previously stated that they will not be copying Liverpool’s city-wide mass testing trial programme, which has been repeatedly praised by the government for getting Merseyside out of Tier 3, and instead want to take a more targeted approach.

It has also been indicated that delivering vaccines to vulnerable groups remains the priority for local health bosses, and that rapid testing is seen as an “additional tool” to combat the virus.

Public health directors from the seven North East councils said: “The seven councils in the North East have consistently worked together in the fight against Covid-19, including on proposals to government for targeted community testing in the settings we feel will have the greatest impact for our residents and businesses.

“This will be an additional tool in our efforts to control the spread of the virus and to support a return to normality in the region, so we are pleased that our approach has been positively received by the Department for Health and Social Care and we await further discussions to provide clarity and assurance on key issues and to ensure this is properly resourced and deliverable.”

The statement was issued by the public health directors for County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, and Sunderland – Amanda Healy, Alice Wiseman, Eugene Milne, Liz Morgan, Wendy Burke, Tom Hall, and Gerry Taylor.

Last week, Sunderland City Council began an asymptomatic community testing programme in Washington, located at the Washington Millennium Centre, in Concord.

North East councils were each allocated an initial 10,000 of the lateral flow Covid-19 tests, which can return results in just half an hour, by the Government in November and had planned to use them to allow care home visitors to safely see their relatives – but that was superseded by the announcement of an England-wide programme.

Confirming the North East’s lateral flow test plans had been approved, health secretary Matt Hancock said: “Working together we will help areas where levels of the virus are highest to reduce their infection rates and break the chains of transmission.

“Roughly one in three people with coronavirus show no symptoms and so it’s essential we broaden testing to help identify those who are infected and infectious, unaware they may be spreading the disease.

“We are rolling out community testing more widely at a rapid pace, with 123 areas now planning to take part.

“If you are offered community testing in your local area, I would strongly encourage you to take up this opportunity to get tested and protect your local community.”