image captionSome fear the area, where case rates have fallen in recent weeks, is being used as a “guinea pig”
Community groups are preparing for a surge in calls for support as mass coronavirus testing begins in Merthyr Tydfil.
From Saturday anyone living or working in the county will be offered a test, in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.
But there are fears many could be forced into poverty if told to self-isolate weeks before Christmas.
The Welsh Government has set up a payment scheme for those on low wages.
Merthyr council said it had set up a regional helpline for those who test positive or were contacted by tracers and told to self-isolate.
Council leader Kevin O’Neill said: “We understand that having a positive test result – and the prospect of having to self-isolate can be quite bewildering.
“This helpline is designed to provide answers for any questions people might have and to reassure them that they’re taking the right action. It’s also a support service for those feeling lonely and isolated.”
image captionThe rise in cases had been blamed on people visiting friends and relatives living closeby
At the start of November, the county had the highest rate of coronavirus in the UK. While the case rate has fallen dramatically in recent weeks, it remains among the worst hit areas in Wales.
On Friday, the day before mass testing began, Merthyr Tydfil had 245.3 cases per 100,000 of the population in a seven-day period, behind Blaenau Gwent (365) and Rhondda Cynon Taf (250.8).
Now the county has become the first part of Wales to pilot mass testing of asymptomatic people.
Anyone working, living or studying in the area has been urged to get tested for the virus, including children over the age of 11.
Up to 175 armed forces personnel have been drafted in to help with the testing, with the first site opening at Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Centre from Saturday.
But there are fears that many will not take the voluntary test because a positive result would mean isolating just weeks before Christmas and potentially losing income.
‘We will pull through’
image captionThe tightly-packed terraced streets have been blamed for the high rates of Covid in valleys communities
Merthyr Valley Homes, which supports people living in 4,100 homes across the county and employs 200 staff, said it was trying to encourage tenants and staff to take up the offer of testing.
Director Michelle Reid said: “We have been rehousing people escaping domestic violence and those who are at risk of being homeless, and we wouldn’t let anything get in the way of doing that.”
Ms Reid said the company was looking at how to support vulnerable and elderly residents, to help them access tests, and had been supporting people already struggling with rent and bills during the pandemic.
“I am very optimistic, the way people in Merthyr have come together to support each other has been incredible, we will pull through this,” she added.
People on low incomes who are told to self-isolate and are unable to work from home will be able to claim £500.
‘No one wants their children to go without’
image captionThe community hub fears that the implications of people having to self-isolate could be huge for the community
At Twyn Community Hub, volunteers are getting ready to help prevent families and those living alone going hungry if forced to self-isolate.
During the pandemic the community rallied to help deliver over 270 food boxes a week, and more than 200 hot meals a week were cooked and delivered to households.
Project manager Louise Goodman said there were real fears in the community that people on zero-hour contracts or self-employed would go without pay before the Christmas holidays if told to self-isolate and that the county was being used as a “guinea pig”.
image captionThere are concerns that more people will need to ask for help if told to isolate
She said: “We are expecting lots of people to contact us for help. It has got to be done, and it will do good, but you must not forget that people’s lives are entwined with this.
“No one wants their children to go without, especially after such a horrible year.”
Despite concerns for people’s mental health and more people feeling isolated and going hungry, Ms Goodman said more people had been volunteering to help during lockdown.
“Everybody is amazing, it just shows what sort of community we are, everyone helps each other and pulls together,” she said.
Lessons from Liverpool
image captionMilitary personnel have been drafted to help at test sites including at Liverpool FC’s stadium
A similar but a pilot scheme in Liverpool started two weeks ago and by Friday over 140,000 had been tested for coronavirus, with more than 700 testing positive.
“Those people…would have been unaware of the fact that they we’re both infected and infectious,” Liverpool City councillor Paul Brant told Politics Wales.
“It really is a help in bearing down on the virus transmission in the city.”
How will Merthyr’s testing work?
Merthyr Tydfil Council said everyone living, working or studying in the county should have two tests over 14 days, or three tests over a three-week period. People can request more if needed.
There is no booking system and people can just turn up at a testing centre.
Mass testing uses lateral flow tests which intend to produce a result within 20-30 minutes.
If an individual tests positive, they will be asked to immediately self-isolate at home and to take another test.
Pupils aged 11-18 who attend schools in Merthyr Tydfil or Merthyr Tydfil College will be able to have a test at their school or college, with parents asked to consent. Some large employers will also carry out testing.
A further 14 sites are due to open in the coming weeks while home tests are being considered for the most vulnerable. Some sites to stay open until 23 December.
Health Minister Vaughan Gething had said the pilot in Merthyr Tydfil will provide “further vital information” to help inform future rollout of mass testing in Wales.
What have the cases been like?
image captionThe case rate in Merthyr rose dramatically at the end of October and has been falling in recent weeks
There were 458 cases in Merthyr Tydfil in the week up to 1 November and the case rate rose as high as 759 cases per 100,000.
The proportion of positive results was also high – accounting for nearly a third of people tested.
Those case rates have since come down and Merthyr Tydfil has been overtaken by Blaenau Gwent and Rhondda Cynon Taf.
image captionTightly-packed communities, including the Gurnos have the highest case rates in the area
‘Pointless or for everyone’s benefit?’
image captionOne shopper said the mass testing was for everyone’s benefit
As rain fell on the town on Friday, there were mixed reactions to the prospect of mass testing.
One man resident said the rollout “could not come quick enough”.
“I would think it’s a necessity, otherwise they wouldn’t come up with it, and if they didn’t how would they get rid of it,” he said.
“I’ve heard a couple of people say “I’m not going to have a jab”, well, that’s up to them, but I think the majority will.”
image captionOne woman questioned whether people would be tested without showing symptoms
A mother of three said she did not see the point in going to get tested unless you had symptoms.
“I don’t see the point in going all the way down, taking my three kids with me, if they are not ill, or anything,” she said.