A person who tested positive for the Brazilian variant of Covid has been tracked down to Croydon and appears not to have infected anyone else, the health secretary has said. Matt Hancock sought to reassure the public after a week-long search to identify the mystery individual.
The effort took a team of 40 people and was launched in an attempt to prevent the mutation, which is believed to be more transmissible and have greater resistance to vaccines, from spreading.
Last Sunday it was announced that three people in England and a further three in Scotland were carrying the variant, which is known as P1 and originated in Manaus, Brazil. Five were found to be isolating, but the whereabouts of the sixth was not known.
A public appeal was put out to everyone who had taken a test at home on 12 and 13 February and had not received their result to call the coronavirus test support line on 119.
Hancock said that the latest technology and “dogged determination of our testing and tracing scheme” helped track down the sixth person to Croydon, south London, before they came forward after the public appeal.
The health secretary said the search was necessary because the person had not filled out a form registering their test correctly, and that more testing was being rolled out around their community to ensure that the variant had not spread.
“The best evidence is that this person in question stayed at home and there’s no sign that there’s been any onward transmission,” he said at a Downing Street coronavirus briefing on Friday.
Dr Susan Hopkins of Public Health England said the team trying to track down the mystery person included those from laboratories, logistics and data analytics – and said they all had very little information to go on.
At the start, she said, all they had was a barcode and a date and time the test was processed at a lab in Cambridge, but they could not immediately match that to the individual who had taken the test.
Officials “worked backwards” from when the test arrived at the lab, to which testing hub it had come from and then through the postal service – first narrowing it down to 10,000 households and then 379, with contact tracers then speaking to all the potential residents.
Then on Wednesday at 3pm, the mystery person answered the public appeal and gave the correct test kit barcode number, Hopkins said, after which they were interviewed extensively and said someone in their household had recently returned from Brazil but that everyone had quarantined at home.
Despite Hancock hailing the outcome as positive, Boris Johnson was earlier this week forced to defend the hotel quarantine system in England, applicable only to UK residents and nationals arriving from 33 “red list” countries. Ministers implemented the scheme as fast as they could, Johnson claimed – after the nearly three-week wait between plans being announced and coming into force. The person had arrived from Brazil before the hotel quarantine scheme came into force.
Labour said the need for a campaign to find the person with the variant showed unforgivable government incompetence. Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, said it was proof of why a comprehensive hotel quarantine was needed now.
Research by the Guardian published earlier this week found the Brazil variant had been detected in at least 15 countries not on England’s “red list”, meaning non-UK residents and nationals arriving from them were not banned and could quarantine at home.
The countries where the variant has been found, according to the World Health Organization, include France, Germany, Spain, the US and Italy.
But Hancock said on Monday that in those countries, the proportion of cases identified as caused by the P1 variant was “exceptionally low”.