Health Secretary Matt Hancock has urged people in Merthyr Tydfil to “play their part” in bringing coronavirus under control by taking part in Wales’ first mass test pilot.
Rapid Covid-19 tests will be offered to residents and workers even if they do not have symptoms in the town which last week had the highest rate of new cases in the UK.
On Wednesday, Mr Hancock said the pilot, which follows one already in place in Liverpool, would provide “vital understanding” on how mass testing can be rolled out across the UK.
He said: “By testing more people, including those without symptoms, we are able to find more positive cases of the virus and break chains of transmission.
“Building on the learnings from the first whole city testing pilot in Liverpool and using the latest rapid tests, this pilot in Merthyr will provide vital understanding of how we can further roll out mass testing, as well as suppressing the virus and peace of mind for residents of Merthyr.
“I want to thank the Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council, Welsh Government and the armed forces for their work in making this pilot possible and bringing a test to everyone who needs one.
“I urge everyone in Merthyr to play their part in bringing this virus under control by getting a test, and by following restrictions in place.”
The testing programme will launch at Merthyr Tydfil’s Rhydycar leisure centre on Saturday with more sites due to open through Merthyr Tydfil County Borough throughout November.
Welsh Secretary Simon Hart said the pilot would be supported by 165 military personnel.
Lateral flow tests will give results within 20 to 30 minutes, with people who test positive then given a traditional swab test and asked to return home so they can self-isolate immediately.
Wales’ health minister Vaughan Gething said: “This is the first time we have rolled out mass testing of symptomatic and asymptomatic people in Wales. It will give us an even greater understanding of prevalence within the community and how many people have Covid.
“We have chosen Merthyr as it has a high prevalence and this mass testing will also help to slow down the spread of the virus in the area.
“The introduction of the rapid testing lateral flow devices is a boost to our test, trace, protect strategy and will speed up the process hugely. This is vital technology which I hope will play an important role in our fight against this deadly virus.”
The leader of Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, Kevin O’Neill, said: “We’ve all been alarmed by the high number of cases in Merthyr Tydfil and action is needed to respond as a community to protect our residents.
“Testing is important even if you don’t have symptoms. We learned this week that in Liverpool, where a Covid-19 testing trial has been carried out, 700 people were found to have unknowingly had the virus – these were cases that would not have been detected otherwise.
“The council will be throwing its support behind this significant undertaking in the coming weeks and encouraging as many of our residents as possible to play their part in trying to bring this virus under some sort of control.”
Last week, Merthyr Tydfil briefly became the worst-hit area of the UK, with 741 cases per 100,000 people.
On Monday, the figure had dropped but the town still had the highest rate in Wales, with 205 new cases recorded in the seven days to November 12 – the equivalent of 339.8 cases per 100,000 people.
At Wednesday’s Welsh Government press briefing, the chief executive of NHS Wales said it was important that people in Merthyr stick to Covid-19 rules.
Dr Andrew Goodall said: “I think one of the dangers of it – and I would welcome the support of the population of Merthyr to deliver this – is that the testing is only one part of this, that allows a diagnosis and a statement that somebody has the virus.
“What has to follow is that people then comply with the guidance and rules that apply.”
He said the rapid virus tests could also be rolled out to healthcare settings.
Dr Goodall also suggested the county of Merthyr’s smaller population compared to the Liverpool City region meant the Welsh pilot could be more targeted.
“I think that’s why this is a useful pilot for us to undertake in Wales, because we can be much more targeted for our population in Merthyr at this stage,” he said.
“We’ve been able to learn about some issues irrespective of the reliability of the testing that comes through.”