How will the new coronavirus test-and-trace system work?

‘We’ll be trading national lockdown for individual isolation,’ says NHS programme chief

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Wednesday 27 May 2020 19:47 BST
Boris Johnson says if people have been alerted by contact tracing app 'they must stay at home'

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Thousands of people are still catching coronavirus every day and scientists have warned the virus is likely to be a feature of life in Britain permanently. Finding a way to release the lockdown and get people back to work, reopen schools and revive the economy, without creating a second surge of infections, is vital.

The new NHS test-and-trace system being launched throughout England on Thursday is designed to help the country switch from an all-encompassing nationwide lockdown into a more targeted approach, as and when infections flare up and people develop symptoms.

It will be heavily reliant on the willingness of the public to report symptoms, get tested, be prepared to isolate, and hand over the information of people they have been in contact with, who will then face their own 14-day quarantine.

Experts have been quick to warn the system is not a magic bullet. A new study by The Royal Society shows the test-and-trace system may reduce infections by between 5 and 15 per cent and only as part of existing efforts such as social distancing and increased handwashing.

Baroness Dido Harding, the Conservative peer and NHS director who is leading the service, said: “NHS test and trace is a service that is designed to enable the vast majority of us to be able to get on with our lives in a much more normal way. But it requires all of us to do our civic duty.

“What we’ll be doing is trading national lockdown for individual isolation. So instead of 60 million people being in national lockdown, a much smaller number of us will be told that we need to stay at home for either seven days if we’re ill, or 14 days if we’ve been in close contact.”

How will the system work?

  • Starting on Thursday, anyone who becomes ill with the symptoms of coronavirus – a persistent cough, fever or loss of smell and taste – will be asked to isolate for seven days and to seek a test either by logging on to or by calling 119. Everyone in their household will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days.
  • After being tested people should receive their result within 48 hours. Those who test positive for Covid-19 will have to remain in isolation for seven days.
  • Within 24 hours of a positive result people will be contacted by text or email asking to share details quickly of anyone they have been in close contact with via a confidential online website or over the phone by one of 25,000 contact tracers employed by Public Health England.
  • A close contact will include any household members, people who have been in direct contact or who they have been closer than 2 metres with for longer than 15 minutes.
  • These contacts will be told to stay at home for 14 days, even if they do not have symptoms.
  • If a contact develops symptoms, they must then get a test, isolate for seven days and follow the same process. If they test negative, they must still complete the 14-day quarantine.

People who may have tested positive for antibodies for Covid-19 may still have to isolate for 14 days because of uncertainty over whether they can still develop the virus.

The system will not make use of the NHS contact tracing app which is still being piloted in the Isle of Wight, although Baroness Harding said it would arrive in the coming weeks.

Action on local outbreaks

The government has given local councils £300m to help them fight outbreaks in their areas, and to develop rapid local testing when numbers start to spike.

Professor John Newton, from Public Health England, said councils would be a key part of the system, with authorities asked to develop local outbreak plans.

He said: “If there is an outbreak of coronavirus in a particular place, we can rapidly deliver more resources, or support more testing capacity to areas of the country where there might be a flare-up. All these things together will drive down the incidence of coronavirus where it does occur, we’ll be able to reduce the spread, and together with the other measures, it will make a real difference.

“The key to this is allowing us all to get back to a more normal social community and economic life while reducing the risks of coronavirus.”

Baroness Harding said she was confident people would comply with the new system. “The vast majority of people have complied with the guidance and we fully expect them to comply with this. I think it’s really important that we don’t stigmatise people who get ill or have been close to someone who is ill.”

She said anyone who tested positive and was told to isolate would be able to apply for statutory sick pay, and self-employed people would be able to seek a government grant.

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