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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.

Contact tracing is an important part of our Test, Trace, Protect strategy, which will help us live and work alongside the virus while research continues to find more effective treatments and a vaccine. The strategy is being delivered through the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service.

As soon as people start to display symptoms, they should arrange to take a test as quickly as possible whilst they, and members of their household, self-isolate. Contact tracing is reliant on tests being taken quickly. On receiving a positive result people are asked to support the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service by reporting their recent contacts to the local contact tracer so that they can be contacted and notified to self-isolate (and take a test if they are also displaying symptoms), to help stop the spread of the virus. Those people will also be required to notify the contact tracer of the name of each person living at the place which they are living and of the address of that place. The purpose of contact tracing is to provide real time intelligence across the whole of Wales on where the disease is and how quickly it is spreading.

We all need to take steps to protect ourselves, our families and our communities if we are to successfully 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 have tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19), the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service will contact you by telephone so that we can help reduce the spread of the disease.

You must self-isolate for 10 days, subject to a few exceptional circumstances, to make sure that you don’t spread the virus. Exceptional circumstances include seeking medical assistance, where urgent or advised by a medical professional.

You’ll be asked where you’ve been recently, who you’ve been in close contact with. This will help the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service contact anyone who may have caught the virus from you. This is in the interests of protecting your health and the health of all of your contacts.

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,  on any occasion beginning up to two days before your symptoms started, 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; and
  • 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 on how you’ll be contacted and the information you’ll be asked to provide.

Young people aged 16 and 17 are generally notified directly by NHS Wales Test, Trace and Protect. In those circumstances the child is treated as an adult and must self-isolate according to the same rules. 

In the case of younger under 16s it will be the parent, guardian or other responsible adult who will be notified about a child’s requirement to self-isolate. In those cases the parent, guardian or responsible adult is required to take all reasonable measures to ensure that the child complies with the requirement to self-isolate. In the rare circumstances where a parent, guardian or responsible adult is notified about a young person aged 16 or 17, this requirement to take all reasonable measures to ensure that the young person self-isolates will apply.

If you’re a confirmed contact:

You’ll only be called when it’s been 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 14 days subject to certain exceptions, to make sure that you don’t spread the virus. It’s really important to do this even if you don’t have symptoms. If you’ve been infected, you could become infectious to others at any point up to 14 days. Your family are not required to self-isolate, but they should follow the general social distancing guidance and avoid contact with you whilst you are isolating at home. Where a person is required to self-isolate as a known contact of an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19 outside of the household setting, only the person (not the whole household) is required to complete a period of self-isolation.

  • You’ll be asked to monitor whether you develop any symptoms so that you get tested as soon as possible. You’ll only have to take a test if you’re displaying symptoms. Testing while you’re not displaying symptoms (asymptomatic) can generate false negatives and isn’t recommended.

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

If you’re working, your employer should allow you to self-isolate and cannot require you to go back to work if you have been notified by NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect 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. They should continue to communicate with you and provide support when you’re in self-isolation. 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 can be done at home during the period of self-isolation. In no circumstances should you return to work during the self-isolation period. Employers are under a duty to take all reasonable measures to minimise the risk of exposure to coronavirus at premises where work is carried out. One of the reasonable measures is to allow and enable an employee to self-isolate if they have tested positive or have had close contact with someone who has tested positive. Therefore employers may be liable for an offence if they do not comply with this measure and they can be served with a closure notice. If employers breach that notice, they will incur penalties ranging from £2,000 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 may be eligible for a range of financial support.

Self-isolation payment scheme

People on low incomes can apply to receive a £500 payment if they have tested positive for coronavirus or they are asked to self-isolate by the NHS Wales Test Trace Protect service because they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.

The payment is available to people on a low income who are unable to work from home and would lose income as a result of self-isolating. To be eligible, people must be self-isolating and in receipt of Universal Credit or another specified benefit.

Read Self-isolation support scheme for more information.

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). For further information read test, trace, protect: guidance for employers.

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?

You’ll only be contacted by the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service if:

  • you’ve tested positive for coronavirus
    On requesting a test you’ll be asked to provide your contact details so that you can be informed of your result. Your details will be shared with the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service so that they can contact you and ask you to share information on your recent contacts.
  • you’re a confirmed contact of someone who has tested positive
    The NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service will contact you if the person who tested positive has passed on your contact details to the service as part of the contact tracing process.

In terms of securely managing your data, the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service will handle this in the same way as other health data in Wales, with all data sent by NHS Wales Informatics Service (NWIS) 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 needed 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 but we, are 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 was launched on Thursday 24 September in Wales and England.

It is an important part of our Test Trace Protect programme to control the spread of Covid-19. The app will be 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 will help 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 on the NHS COVID-19 app support website.

How many people will need to be contact traced and asked to self-isolate?

The number of people who will need to be contact traced will depend on how people in Wales interact with other people over the coming weeks and months.

For example, factors will include:

  • the number of people someone has been in close contact with
  • their working and social environment
  • journeys they make where they are in close proximity to others

The number of people asked to self-isolate will depend on the number of people who have been in contact with those who have tested positive for coronavirus.

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.

However 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 and in that case those people could face prosecution.

We hope people understand the severity of the situation we are facing and will comply with the regulations, without having to be issued with penalties.

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 is influenced by whether we contact trace on symptoms or a positive test result.

Modelling suggests potentially millions 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, as it will depend on how people react as the pandemic progresses; how well people continue to respond to the coronavirus regulations as they are 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 find more effective treatments and a vaccine.