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Contact tracing: What is contact tracing? Contact tracing explained

Contact tracing is a fundamental part of outbreak control amid the coronavirus crisis. Several contact-tracing apps have been launched in a bid to use technology to help stop the disease in its tracks. But what does contract tracing actually mean and how could it prove effective in curbing coronavirus?

What is contact tracing?

Contact tracing is the process by which persons are identified who have come into contact with an infected person.

This process is one of the interventions which has been used around the globe to control the spread of infections such as Ebola and now coronavirus.

Contract tracing aims to identify and alert people who have come into contact with an infected person, ideally before they become ill.


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The goals of contact tracing are as follows:

  • To interrupt ongoing transmission and reduce the spread of an infection.
  • To alert contacts to the possibility of infection and offer preventive counselling or prophylactic care.
  • To offer diagnosis, counselling and treatment to already infected individuals.
  • If the infection is treatable, to help prevent reinfection of the originally infected patient.
  • To learn about the epidemiology of a disease in a particular population.

How is contact tracing being used to tackle COVID-19?

When a person tests positive for coronavirus, Public Health England (PHE) will then identify anyone who has had close contact with them during the time they were considered to be infectious.

PHE will then seek out these individuals as soon as possible and give them the necessary advice.

Anyone from a higher risk group is followed up with daily to see how they are and further action is then action if they become unwell.

When a UK case is linked to another country, PHE notifies the public health authorities in that country so the necessary action can be taken by that nation.

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How can smartphone apps help with contact tracing?

Several countries around the world are using smartphone applications to help monitor the spread of COVID-19 and help with contact tracing.

Smartphone software can help alert users when they were recently near someone who becomes infected for a significant amount of time.

If any user is later believed to have become infected and records the fact, a cascade of alerts could instantly be sent to others.

Those deemed to be high at-risk would then be told to stay at home, while others could continue to live outside the lockdown.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed the NHS would be rolling out an app imminently.

On Wednesday, Mr Hancock said large-scale contact tracing will begin once the number of new cases of COVID-19 starts to fall.

Speaking from the House of Commons, he said: “As we have reached the peak, as we bring the number of new cases down, so we will introduce contact tracing at large scale.”

He added that the new NHS for contact tracing is in development.

On Tuesday, there were 4,301 new cases of coronavirus reported, as well as 823 more deaths.

What are the concerns about smartphone contact tracing apps?

Some experts have said there is a lack of evidence to support the accuracy of these apps.

Others have stressed the importance of supporting these contact tracing app findings with human checkers.

Additionally, hundreds of scientists and researchers have signed a statement warning “mission creep” could eventually lead to “unprecedented surveillance of society at large”.

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