October 27, 2020

Coronavirus: How does contact tracing work?

Graphic shows a man's silhouette inside a smartphone outline, with lines linking him to other silhouettes

People who have been in close contact with someone found to have Covid-19 are now being traced and asked to self-isolate for a fortnight.

But what happens when someone who went to the same pub or restaurant as you tests positive?

How does contact tracing work in England?

If you develop coronavirus symptoms and test positive, you’ll be contacted by text, email or phone and asked to log on to the NHS Test and Trace website.

There you must give personal information, including:

  • Name, date of birth and postcode
  • Who you live with
  • Places you visited recently
  • Names and contact details of people you have recently been in close contact with

Close contacts are:

  • people you’ve spent 15 minutes or more with at a distance of less than 2m (6ft)
  • Sexual partners, household members or people with whom you have had face-to-face conversations at a distance of less than 1m

Contact must have taken place within a nine-day period, starting 48 hours before symptoms appeared.

No-one contacted will be told your identity.

A parent or guardian must give permission for a call with under-18s to continue.

Must I provide contact details if eating out?

Organisations in certain sectors – like pubs and restaurants – must collect and keep customer details for 21 days.

It’s because there’s a higher risk of transmitting Covid-19 in public places – both inside and outdoors – where people are near others they don’t live with.

Giving personal information is voluntary and it’s not the venue’s responsibility to ensure it’s correct.

If a customer tests positive, will the pub or restaurant have to close?

Possibly, but not necessarily.

Official government advice says an NHS Test and Trace call does not always mean a pub or restaurant must close.

It depends on the circumstances and when the infected person visited.

NHS Test and Trace could ask staff to:

  • get tested for Covid-19
  • take extra care with social distancing
  • self-isolate “in some circumstances”

Local health protection officials have the power to close establishments.

A few pubs in England, which reopened on 4 July, have closed after customers tested positive.

What if I am contacted?

Anyone deemed at risk of infection must stay home for 14 days from their point of contact with the infected person.

You must self-isolate, even if you don’t have symptoms, to prevent the virus spreading.

You should order food or medicine online or by phone, or ask friends and family to leave it on your doorstep.

Other people you live with won’t have to self-isolate, unless they also develop symptoms, but they must take extra care around you regarding social distancing and hand washing.

Do I have to self-isolate?

It’s currently voluntary. But the Department for Health says it may check up on people and could impose fines.

How is the tracing scheme going?

The scheme – which the prime minister claimed would be “world-beating” – was launched on 28 May. From then until 1 July:

  • 31,421 people who tested positive had been referred to the scheme
  • 23,796 of them (75.7%) provided details of recent contacts
  • The contacts totalled 169,863 people – of these, 144,501 (85.1%) were reached and asked to self-isolate

Plans for an app were abandoned in mid-June, with ministers now working towards a model based on Apple and Google technology.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Thousands of contact tracers have been hired to get in touch with people

What about other parts of the UK?

Northern Ireland’s contact tracing operates exclusively by phone.

Scotland’s system is called NHS Test and Protect, while Wales’s ”test, trace, protect” system launched on 1 June.

How do I avoid scammers?

England’s NHS Test and Trace service will only call from 0300 0135 000. It will not ask you:

  • for bank details/payments
  • for details of any other accounts, such as social media
  • to set up a password or PIN number over the phone
  • to call a premium rate number, like those starting 09 or 087

What about sick pay?

If people can’t work from home, the government says employers must ensure any self-isolating employee receives sick pay and let them use paid leave days if they prefer.

Self-employed people who are self-isolating but can’t work from home can apply for an income support scheme grant, the government says, although this is designed to cover three months’ worth of profits.