MORE than a fifth of the country will have their sewage tested for Covid after government pilots found it can trace the virus even if just one in 1,000 people have it.
Ministers believe sewage testing will provide a vital new tool in identifying local outbreaks days and in some cases weeks before they currently can.
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Tests will be carried out four times a week in more than 90 wastewater sites, which cover around 22 per cent of England’s population.
Crucially, traces of Covid can be found in sewage even if someone shows no symptoms.
So public health authorities will be alerted when sewage testing flags up a spike in cases.
That will ensure health chiefs are ready with the right testing capacity for a particular area because they know the sewage tests are likely to translate into an increase in people showing symptoms.
And when the Government has enough capacity to test asymptomatic people, public health officials will be able to roll out mass testing of the local population to catch those who have caught the virus.
SHUT DOWN OUTBREAKS
Initial government pilots of sewage testing managed to spot a Covid outbreak in Plymouth – stopping it spreading further.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said testing sewage will help shut down outbreaks much earlier than the current time it takes, which relies on symptomatic people coming forward for tests and can delay identification of outbreaks by days and even weeks.
In an interview with The Sun, he said that sewage testing is so accurate that it could identify street-by-street outbreaks.
And he said it could be a gamechanger in tackling spikes at universities where many students pick up the bug without symptoms.
The Cabinet minister said: “This is going to be an important new tool for us to do that because we will see a trend, and a rising trend of the virus, before it starts to be picked up in tests.”
“It’s quite sensitive – even if it’s just 1 in a 1,000 people the test is sensitive enough to be able to pick up the DNA of the virus.”
“We think it could be a powerful tool and it can actually give us quite a good early indicator or rise in prevalence, particularly if you’ve got university towns where lots of people might be asymptomatic and therefore not reporting symptoms, not getting track and traced.
“It means the health authorities can see where there might be an emerging problem ahead of the test results picking it up.”
Mr Eustice added: “Obviously there’s no magic bullet in this pandemic.
"We’re having to do lots of very difficult things to try to manage the spread of the virus and there’s no subsidy in the end for testing people who’ve got symptoms – and then trying to get others who've been in contact with them to isolate.
“That's got to be the central plank in the approach.
“But the big advantage of this is it enables us to pick up trends faster than you would be able to through test and trace, and particularly where you've got an asymptomatic outbreak – so where you might get people shedding the virus but are actually not symptomatic.”
He said: “The local health managers will be able to make sure that they're braced and ready with the right testing capacity because they'll know that it's likely to translate into increased symptoms and so on.
“And it just it just helps us speed up the response and monitor the trends in the virus.”
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