Firefighters brought in to help battle against new Covid variant

Firefighters have been drafted in to help get thousands of people tested in a bid to stop the spread of the South African strain of Covid-19.

Health chiefs are scrambling to stop the highly transmissible variant of the virus from spreading across the region after a case was found in Walsall.

As part of Operation Eagle they want to test 10,300 people over the next two weeks in the WS2 area.

And firefighters will start distributing tests door-to-door from Monday after it emerged that take up for testing so far had been in the "low hundreds".

Meanwhile a scheme to test a further 10,000 people has been launched in the Northfield area of Birmingham, where two cases of the variant were found.

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Walsall Council leader Mike Bird told a meeting of the region's coronavirus taskforce that testing numbers in WS2 were "in the low hundreds at the moment".

"Obviously the weekend will see more availability there," he said, adding that the fire service would be assisting by "knocking on doors" from Monday.

"It is a mammoth task and we are relying on as many people as possible to go out and do that drop and collect," he added.

"We're certainly up to the task, in both Birmingham and Walsall. We've risen above the challenges so far and I'm sure we'll get to the end of this with a positive result."

Clive Wright, regional NHS Covid convener, said: "This is a surge process and it will be for 14 days.

"The clock is already ticking in Walsall, it will also run in Birmingham, and then we will assess what has to happen from there."

Birmingham Council leader Ian Ward said 650 people were tested in Northfield on Thursday.

It has today emerged that a new vaccination centre at the old TJ Hughes store in the Saddlers Centre is unlikely to start giving jabs until March 1.

Darren Fradgley, deputy chief executive of Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust, said the site could be turned on within 48 hours once a consistent vaccine supply was assured.

The facility will treat around 3,600 extra people every day.

It comes after the death toll in hospitals across the Black Country, Birmingham and Staffordshire passed 6,500.

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