More than 80,000 rugby fans who attended the England versus South Africa game at Twickenham last weekend are being urged to come forward for testing if they have Covid symptoms in a bid to stamp out the new Omicron variant before it gets a grip on the British population.
The game operated a strict Covid pass system, meaning spectators had to show evidence of double vaccination and a negative lateral flow test, but the new variant is thought to be highly contagious and may be able to evade vaccines.
On Saturday, Munira Wilson, the MP for the area who is also the Liberal Democrats health spokesperson, said: "While I'm confident the RFU will have had the necessary protocols in place to prevent any potential spread, this serves as a reminder that we all must remain vigilant in the fight against this virus.
'Ministers must spring into action'
"Those who had flown in for the match and anyone who was in and around the stadium that day who has concerns should follow UK Health Security Agency advice in coming forward and getting tested.
"More broadly, the emergence of this new variant stresses the need to donate vaccines through the Covax programme. Ministers must spring into action and recognise no one is safe from Covid until we all are safe."
On Saturday, Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, announced that two people carrying the variant had been identified in the UK – one in Chelmsford, Essex, the other in Nottingham.
There were no confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the southwest London area around Twickenham at the time of writing, but Covid cases have climbed sharply in the area over the past week.
Cases for London as a whole are rising and that is being driven by a recent surge in cases in Richmond-on-Thames, the leafy London suburb which neighbours Twickenham.
Cases have been climbing there since early November but noticeably stepped up a gear after last week's rugby match.
Nearby Wandsworth, which had the highest rate in the capital at the time of the Euros football finals over the summer, has also had an eye-catching surge.
"Due to the emergence of the new variant, it's probably worth keeping an eye on Southwark, Barking and Dagenham and Greenwich", noted one observer. "These [areas] have low rates right now but have the largest communities of people with recent African heritage".
The UK Health Security Agency (HSA) has launched a massive operation to track an estimated 9000 people who have arrived in the UK from South Africa in the past 14 days, with officials using passenger locator forms to contact travellers.
It is also thought HSA officials will be trawling through databases of recent PCR tests to see if any show "S gene dropouts" – a telltale sign of the new mutated form of the virus.
Surge testing of entire neighbourhoods is likely to be used by HSA as and when new cases of the variant are detected.
Surge testing was successfully deployed in London and other regions of the UK earlier this year when small clusters of previous variants emerged.
Already, mass testing is underway in Essex and Nottinghamshire to identify and isolate possible further omicron cases.
"We have moved rapidly and the individuals are self-isolating while contact tracing is ongoing", Javid said on Saturday.
"We will do all we can to protect the UK public against this emerging threat and that is why we are surging testing capacity to the impacted communities."
The UK has reacted quickly to the news of the new variant, placing much of southern Africa on the travel red list, but there was criticism yesterday of its border controls – a long-running national sore.
Passengers arriving on a flight from Gauteng – the South African province where the new variant is rampant – were reportedly allowed to leave the airport without testing.
"The captain read out a statement 'advising' self-isolation and further tests. But it's at the discretion of passengers and it's not legally enforceable", noted a social media commentator with an acquaintance on the flight.
"Passengers then got on the airport shuttle to baggage reclaim, mixing with dozens of other flights."