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Explains how contact tracing is being used to control the spread of coronavirus.

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First published:
1 June 2020
Last updated:

What is contact tracing?

Contact tracing is a tried and tested method of controlling the spread of infectious diseases. The aim is to protect your health and support the ongoing work to control the spread of coronavirus.

It’s an important part of our Test, Trace, Protect strategy and plays an important role alongside testing and the vaccine. It's supporting us to save lives and livelihoods during 2021 and the longer term. The strategy is being delivered through the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service.

As soon as you start to display symptoms, you should arrange to take a PCR test whilst you, and members of your household, self-isolate. You should follow the self-isolation guidance.

Contact tracing relies on tests being taken quickly. If you receive a positive result, you and your household should continue to self-isolate. You should wait for a call from a contact tracer from the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service. They'll ask you to provide information on who you’ve been in contact with. This will help them to provide those at risk of becoming ill and spreading the virus with appropriate advice and support to self-isolate. 

Contact tracing provides up to date information across the whole of Wales on where the disease is and how fast it is spreading.

We all need to take steps to protect ourselves, our families and our communities if we are to limit the spread of the disease. Contact tracing plays an important role in helping us live with the virus.

How does contact tracing link with our Test, Trace, Protect strategy?

What does contact tracing involve?

If you have tested positive:

If you’ve  tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19), the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service will contact you by phone.

They’ll tell you that you must self-isolate for 10 days, to make sure that you don’t spread the virus. There are some very limited reasons to leave self isolation, which includes seeking medical help, where urgent or advised by a medical professional.

They’ll ask you where you’ve been recently, who you’ve been in close contact with, on any occasion beginning up to 14 days before your symptoms started.

They’ll ask you to name each person living at the place where you are living and the address. This will help to identify where you may have caught the virus from, as well as individuals who you may have passed the virus to.

They’ll explain what this means and talk you through the process. They will tell you what you and anyone you live with need to do about self-isolation.

This information will help us contact those at risk of becoming ill and spreading the virus to give them appropriate advice. This is in the interests of protecting your health and the health of your contacts.

What is a close contact?

A close contact is anyone that a contact tracer considers may lead to a risk of infection or contamination with coronavirus, meaning those you may or may not live with and with whom you have been in close proximity, including:

  • someone you have had face to face contact with at a distance of less than 1 metre, had skin-to-skin physical contact with, or that you have coughed on, or had other forms of contact within 1 metre for 1 minute or longer
  • someone that you have spent more than 15 minutes within two metres of
  • someone that you have travelled in a car or other small vehicle with, or  someone that has been in close proximity to you on public transport

Read contact tracing: if you have tested positive for further guidance.

Children and young people

NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect generally notify young people aged 16 and 17 themselves. In these circumstances the young person is treated as an adult and they must self-isolate according to the same rules. 

For under 16s they will notify the parent, guardian or other responsible adult about a child’s need to self-isolate. In those cases the parent, guardian or responsible adult is required to do all they reasonably can, to make sure the child self-isolates.

If a parent, guardian or responsible adult is notified about someone aged 16 or 17, they have to do all they reasonably can to ensure the young person follows the rules. 

If you’re a confirmed contact

The NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service will only call you when it’s confirmed that you have had close contact with someone who has coronavirus. This means you would be at increased risk of catching the disease and passing it on to others.   

In Wales, contact tracing is about protecting your health and the health of others.

You must self-isolate for 10 days subject to certain exceptions, to make sure that you don’t spread the virus.

When a contact tracer calls you, they will tell you to self-isolate immediately. They will also tell you to book a PCR test as soon as possible, and again on day 8. If the tests are negative, you will still need to self-isolate for the full 10 day period.

It’s really important to do this even if you don’t have symptoms. If you’ve been infected, it can take time for symptoms to develop or to become infectious to others.

Your family are not required to self-isolate if you a contact of a positive case outside your household. Your family should follow the general social distancing guidance and avoid contact with you whilst you are isolating at home. 

The NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service will support you through the process, particularly if you’re vulnerable or if you have concerns about self-isolation.

If you’re working and the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service have told you that you need to self-isolate because:

  • you have tested positive for COVID-19; or 
  • have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive

Your employer should allow you to self-isolate and cannot require you to go back to work. When you're self-isolating they should continue to communicate with you and provide support. This includes allowing you to work from home if you’re well enough and it’s practical to do so. This might include finding alternative work that you can do at home during your self-isolation period.

In no circumstances should you return to work during the self-isolation period. Employers by law have a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus. This includes allowing and assisting an employee to self-isolate if they have tested positive or are a close contact of a positive case.

Employers could be breaking the law if they don't do this and could be issued with a closure notice. If employers breach that notice, they may be guilty of an offence and could face a fine of up to £10,000.

We’re recommending to employers that self-isolation, as part of the contact tracing process, shouldn’t be recorded against your sickness record.

You can also read the test, trace, protect: guidance for employers and contact tracing: if you’re a confirmed contact for further information.

If you have been asked to self-isolate and you cannot work from home, you may be entitled to a £500 payment via the Self-isolation Support Scheme. This scheme is specifically intended for people who are in employment or self-employment who will lose income if they self-isolate. Eligibility details are on the website and applications can be made via local authorities.

If you are not eligible for this scheme but you are at risk of financial hardship, your local authority may be able to provide advice about other possible sources of financial support. 

Your local authority or County Voluntary Council will also be able to provide advice about other means of support in present circumstances. You may be eligible for a range of financial support.

Backwards contact tracing

Backwards contact tracing (BCT) plays a vital role in the effort to minimise and prevent the spread of COVID-19. BCT looks back in time, a further 12 days than the traditional 2 days before symptom onset or date of test. BCT is a key constituent of the approach of wider TTP and contact tracing.

BCT is being used for settings or location based events where there is no known or identified possible source of infection and aims:

  • to identify possible source(s) of the infection of confirmed COVID-19 cases 
  • to identify further cases and contacts (including both locations and individuals)
  • to enhance the ability to detect clusters and outbreaks (including potential super-spreader events) of COVID-19 in community settings 
  • to support public health action
  • to add to surveillance / situation awareness of outbreaks and chains of transmission of COVID-19 in Wales

Contact tracers may ask you to share information from up to 14 days before developing symptoms or taking a test. This will help NHS Wales TTP identify potential places or people you may have caught the virus from. They might then be able to identify other, unknown people who may have caught the virus from them.

Contact tracers will then get in touch with those people who you have identified in the additional timeframes. Any people identified through BCT are not considered to be at risk of developing the infection from contact with the positive case. This is because the contact occurred outside of the positive case’s infectious period. However they may be possible sources of infection and they will be asked to take a test. Unlike traditional contact tracing they will not be asked to self-isolate. 

In these circumstances, people are advised to take a test to try to identify who the potential sources of COVID-19 are in that particular chain. If they go on to test positive, they'll be asked to self-isolate whilst traditional contact tracing is undertaken. This is to prevent onwards spread of COVID-19.

Self-isolation payment scheme

You may be eligible for the self-isolation support scheme if you have tested positive for coronavirus or been identified as a close contact by NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service.

Read Self-isolation support scheme for more information and eligibility criteria.

Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)

Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) may be available to you if you’re unable to work as a result of being contacted by the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service through coming into contact with someone who has coronavirus (subject to eligibility). 

Read contact tracing: if you’re a confirmed contact for further information.

What signs should I look out for in terms of scams?

In supporting the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service to deliver contact tracing, you should remain vigilant for any signs of cyber security, spoofing, phishing or fraud. You’ll only be contacted through the service if you’ve received a positive test for coronavirus or you’ve been identified as a contact of someone who has tested positive.

All contacts from the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect Services will come from specific numbers which you’ll find in these pages:

contact tracing: if you’ve tested positive 

contact tracing: if you’re a confirmed contact

Read contact tracing: stay alert to scams for further information on what to look out for in terms of scams.

How do I know that the data I provide as part of the contact tracing process will be handled safely?

The NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service will only contact you if:

  • you’ve tested positive for coronavirus. When you ask for a test you’ll be asked for your contact details so that you’ll receive your result
  • If you test positive, your details will be given to NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service so that they can contact you. They’ll then ask you to share information on your recent contacts
  • you’re a confirmed contact of someone who has tested positive.  NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect will contact you if the person who tested positive has passed on your contact details as part of the contact tracing process

The NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service will securely handle your data in the same way as other health data in Wales.  All data is sent by NHS Wales Digital Health and Care Wales (DHCW) to SAIL (the databank assisting the Government and NHS in tackling the pandemic). An overarching Wales Accord on the Sharing of Personal Information (WASPI) agreement has been made in respect of the introduction of the mass contact tracing arrangements in Wales.

Further information on the role of WASPI.

Who is delivering contact tracing?

The NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service includes a number of partners working together to help contain the spread of the virus from Public Health Wales, to Local Health Boards and Local Authorities in Wales, NHS Wales Informatics Service (NWIS) and others.

Contact tracing is delivered by local authorities and health boards. This approach has meant we are using and building on the expertise and knowledge that exists in our local health protection teams and rapidly create a highly effective national contact tracing team. This approach is helping to speed up contact tracing and identify new trends or local clusters of the virus as early as possible.

How many staff are needed to operate contact tracing in Wales?

The number of staff we need to operate contact tracing in Wales will depend on how successful we are in controlling the virus. The number of staff will increase and decrease in response to how the situation unfolds.  We’re committed to providing an effective and efficient contact tracing service.

How does the NHS Covid-19 App support contact tracing?

The NHS Covid-19 app is an important part of our Test, Trace, Protect programme to control the spread of Covid-19. The app is used, alongside traditional contact tracing, to notify users if they come into contact with someone who later tests positive for coronavirus.

The app allows people to report symptoms, order a coronavirus test, check in to venues by scanning a QR code and it helps the NHS trace individuals that may have coronavirus.

The app helps the NHS understand if the virus is spreading in a particular area, and so local authorities can respond quickly to stop it spreading further and save lives.

The app does this while protecting a user’s anonymity. Nobody, including the government, will know who or where a particular user is.

The app is available for download from the Apple app store or Google Play.

Further information about the app and how to use it can be found here and on the NHS COVID-19 app support website.

What happens if people don’t comply?

Everyone has a role to play in our national effort to respond to coronavirus. If people don’t help and work together, they put themselves, their families and other people, particularly those most vulnerable, at risk of contracting coronavirus. They would also be helping to spread the disease and contributing to prolonging the pandemic.

The purpose of contact tracing is to protect the health of people in Wales and control the spread of the virus. If a person should be self-isolating and isn’t, the police will explain what they need to do and encourage them to comply.

If they continue to not comply, then police forces exercise the legal powers available to them as necessary. They can issue fixed penalty notices to those aged 18 or over, starting at £60 and rising to £1920 where repeated over a number of occasions. In that case those people could face prosecution.

Why will contact tracing start on a positive test result and not on symptoms?

One of the key factors in determining the scale of contact tracing is the number of cases. This influences whether we contact trace on symptoms or a positive test result.

Modelling suggests a disproportionately large number of contacts per month would need to be followed up if contact tracing was operated on the basis of symptoms, which could require a significant proportion of the population self-isolating as a precautionary measure.

We have taken into account these factors and advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). We have always based our approach on the best available scientific evidence, health surveillance and international learning and will continue to do so.

We will continue to review and develop our approach in line with developing scientific and clinical advice, moving to contact tracing on symptoms if the evidence, resources and experience support it.

How long will contact tracing be in operation?

It isn’t possible to give a definitive answer. It depends on

  • how people continue to react to the pan;
  • how well people continue to respond to the coronavirus regulations as  reviewed and amended;
  • the need to self-isolate if they have symptoms or if they have been in contact with someone who has coronavirus.

We will operate contact tracing as long as we need to, to contain the spread of the virus in the community.

Contact tracing plays an important role in helping us to live with the virus as work continues to vaccinate people and find out more about the virus.