It’s -2C, there’s snow on the ground and dozens of people are standing in a queue outside a Moss Side church.
Despite the icy conditions, most of the people waiting here have a grim determination about them – they feel like they have a job to do.
Around 24 hours ago, authorities began to issue warnings about a new strain of coronavirus which has recently surfaced in South Manchester.
This new variant – officially named E484K – is related to another mutated strain discovered in Bristol last month and both are versions of the strain first found in Kent that has quickly spread through the population.
Early studies have found no evidence that this new coronavirus is resistant to the vaccines currently being circulated across the country, although there is concern that it could be spreading more quickly from person to person.
So, when four cases were discovered in two unconnected homes around Moss Side, Manchester city council began a testing ‘surge’ – aiming to test as many as 10,000 people and paint a picture to illustrate how far the virus has spread.
On the first day of this mass testing push, it seems that the community is willing to lend a hand.
The council has warned people in parts of Hulme, Moss Side, Whalley Range and Fallowfield that they may need to get checked and says anyone whose postcode begins with M14 4, M14 7, M15 5, M15 6, M16 7 or M16 8 should visit its website to see what to do next.
There are also plans to send volunteers door to door to offer testing to anyone who cannot make it to one of the designated sites in the area.
At the moment there are two hubs open in Moss Side, at Our Lady’s R C Church, in Raby Street, and the Guru Nanak Dev Ji Gurdwara, in Monton Street. Both of these are walk-in testings sites, meaning anyone can walk or drive up to the gates and ask for a test without an appointment.
The two centres opened at 10am but queues were already forming outside by 9.30am while staff from Sodexo – the company contracted by the NHS to run the sites – began to set up tents and mobile testing units on the snowy ground.
James Sharpe was the first person in line at the gates of Our Lady’s Church.
He lives within the catchment area and said he had been inundated with messages from friends advising he go and get tested following yesterday’s discoveries.
As he waited in the chilly weather with his hat and scarf on, he explained that he feels obliged to try and help by getting a test.
“I’m concerned about the speed of this new variant and the virility so I’m here to do my civil duty – they want us to get tested so let’s do it,” he said.
“The big thing I’m worried about is that, if we don’t nip it in the bud, we could stay in a higher tier lockdown until things settle down.
“And, if you look at this community as well, we know BAME people are more susceptible so I could nip into a shop and pick it up or give it to someone else and make them really sick. That’s the thing I’m most worried about.”
Next in line behind James was Dr John Littler, a GP at Cornbrook Medical Practice in Hulme.
He gets regular lateral flow tests to make sure he is safe to see patients but the walk-in centres are offering PCR testing instead. This takes longer to get a result – up to three days – but is more accurate and provides the detail needed to track the spread of this new strain.
The doctor does not live in the catchment but a lot of his patients do and he hopes to put their mind at ease over the new Covid variant.
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“Our patients are really concerned about their loved ones for one and the effect this could all have on their livelihoods,” he explained.
“We’ve got a medical practice nearby and a lot of our patients are in the catchment area so we’ve been asked to get tested.
“We’re trying to reassure the local community to show that we’ve been tested.”
Once testing began at the two Moss Side hubs, the queues quickly dissipated. As the snow melted away throughout the morning, a steady stream of visitors came to both centres and seemed to be quickly cycled through the testing process and then sent on their way.
Abu Nayem, from Moss Side, lives very close to the Our Lady’s Centre and came to get a test after hearing about the new variant in the news.
He is particularly worried about the lack of information available on this latest strain of coronavirus and the potential for asymptomatic carriers to be spreading it.
Both of the new walk-in centres have been set up for people who have not shown symptoms of the virus but live within the catchment area, unlike other testing sites which can only be accessed once you have explained your symptoms and been referred.
“I saw last night on the MEN they were saying that the Moss Side area had this new variant so that’s why I’m here,” Abu said.
“I’m worried about it to be honest, because there could be no symptoms and I don’t know who’s got it and who hasn’t which is scary.
“I was watching the news and they were saying that the vaccine, the Astra Zeneca one, is effective on this variant and that’s great news but it’s definitely a worrying situation because we don’t know much about it all.”
Lisa Marriott and Rachael Ciechanowicz are friends who live within the catchment area and made the trip to the testing together.
They both explained that, like James and Dr Littler, they feel a responsibility to help the authorities gather as much data as possible to track the spread of the virus.
Lisa said: “Last night it was about 10pm and we’d heard there was this new variant, I like to try and keep on top of what’s going on.
“It included us and I thought that if it’s in the area we should do everything we can to help with the research to see what it’s doing and where it’s spreading.
“I’m not worried about it, I think we all believe in what the experts and the scientists are telling us so we understand and we listen to them and it’s about getting a bit more information.”
Rachael added: “It was on the government website saying they’re going to do surge tests in this area. I thought that was something different so obviously they’re trying to deal with it.
“I get the flu jab every year and there’s always different mutations of that so that’s what we’re doing. We’re keeping on top of the variant and hoping the vaccine will work how it should.”
The two Moss Side testing centres are now full operational and set up to welcome more visitors over the next week.
Meanwhile, the council plans to open a new site in the coming days and get door-to-door testing running as soon as possible.
In a statement released yesterday, David Regan, Director of Public Health, Manchester city council, said: “We all know that the virus will change over time and it’s important that we investigate new strains to understand how they might spread. This is exactly what we’re doing with the intensive testing in parts of Manchester with local testing units and people going door-to-door to offer people tests.
“There is no evidence that this variant will be resistant to the vaccines or causes a more severe illness, and it is not yet known if the strain can be passed more easily between people. But it is really important that everyone who lives in the boundary area and is over the age of 16 plays their part and gets a test.
“The best thing we can all do it to keep following the rules – Hands, Face, Space – get a test if you have symptoms, and keep your vaccination appointment when you are called.”
To check the latest guidance, visit: www.manchester.gov.uk/coronavirus.