Contact tracing: What does it do, why is it crucial, and can I be recruited?

The Government has set a target to appoint 18,000 contact tracers by mid-May. Credit: PA

The Government has come under fire from Labour over the nuts-and-bolts of its track-and-trace operation, seen as a crucial component of efforts to safely ease strict lockdown measures further without risking a second wave of coronavirus infections.

In particular, Rachel Reeves, shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has called for answers and clarity over the operation.

Rachel Reeves is demanding answers on how the track-and-trace operation works Credit: Chris McAndrew/PA

What is the test, track and trace strategy?

In a nutshell, test, track and trace means testing people for coronavirus, tracking the spread of the virus, then tracing the people an infected person has come into contact with.

Health officials began contact tracing for every positive diagnosis of coronavirus following the first confirmed cases in January.

However, Public Health England advised ministers in early March that the policy should be stopped because the virus was “more widespread”.

Inhabitants on the Isle of Wight are being recruited for a pilot scheme to download a contact tracing app developed by NHSX, the health service’s digital technology arm.

The app uses Bluetooth signals to register other app users you have been in close proximity with.

If someone develops symptoms of coronavirus they can chose to inform the app which will trigger an anonymous alert to other users the application has registered you being in contact with.

Those users will get an alert telling them they have been close to someone with the virus and may advise them to self-isolate.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden told ITV News on Monday the government was "on track" to roll the app out to the rest of the UK by the end of May.

  • Sounds promising - are there any hitches?

Both iOs and Android operating systems prohibit constant Bluetooth signal broadcasts in order to preserve battery life and protect privacy. There may be no Bluetooth signal if your phone is locked or you are not looking at the app, which would mean it would be blocked from exchanging signals with another phones and so failing to register "a contact".

In other words, two people may spend time in close proximity with each other, but unless they open the app, their encounter may not register on the system and they would not be alerted should either one start showing symptoms of Covid-10.

Additionally, the app will also only register people as a "contact" if they are within two metres of each and have spent at least 15 minutes in close proximity.

  • So that's the track and tracing, what about the testing?

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced on Monday that everyone in the UK over the age of five who was displaying Covid-19 symptoms could be tested.

The test involves taking a swab of the nose and the back of the throat which can be done by the person yourself or by someone else whether at home or at a regional testing centre. Testing is most effective within three days of symptoms developing.

People can apply for a home test kit or visit one of the 48 regional test centres.

The Department of Health significantly ramped up testing for Covid-19 in recent weeks, setting a 100,000 target for May 1.

"These are highly challenging targets that we have set ourselves," Mr Dowden told ITV News, insisting the government "had met those" despite the 100,000 daily testing target repeatedly not being hit.

  • When I can expect my results?

Once you have taken the test, your sample will be analysed in a laboratory, and you will be informed of the result (positive, negative, or unclear) by text and/or email. You will be given advice on any next steps that need to be taken following your result.

The DoH said it aims to return test results within 48 hours of a swab being taken, or within 72 hours for a home test.

  • How will the data be collected and used?

The data collected by the app would only be used for NHS care, evaluation and research.

This anonymous log of how close they are to others will be stored securely on their phone, according to a letter to local authorities and public health directors from Public Health England.

In England, test results will be sent to a central database held by NHSX and controlled by NHS England "to enable organisations to respond to coronavirus" the DoH website says.

"All information in this database is held securely, and access to this information is tightly governed, in line with data protection requirements", the DoH say.

NHS Digital is collating test results for health bodies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The government's contact tracing app campaign. Credit: NHS

So where do contact tracers come into it?

Separate contact tracing will run alongside the app.

While the app works automatically, a legion of human contact tracers is being recruited to manually gather information about the places infected people have visited and others they have been in contact with to get a detailed picture of who might be at risk of infection.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said the Government has now recruited 17,000 contact tracers for the test, track and trace programme, just short of its 18,000 target - though Labour cited expert evidence saying nearly three times that number would be required to manage the workload.

Of those, some 3,000 would be qualified public health and clinical professionals, and the remaining 15,000 will be call handlers.

People on the Isle of Wight have been urged to download the NHS coronavirus contact tracing app. Credit: Steve Parsons/PA

Is there a concern the need for candidates will dilute the quality or suitability of those being hired?

That certainly seems to be among Labour’s main concerns, yes.

In Rachel Reeves’s letter to Michael Gove, her Government counterpart, she described contact tracing as a skilled role, involving the handling of highly sensitive information.

"Yet", she said, "job advertisements for manual contact tracing staff are presented as a 'work from home opportunity', at an hourly rate of less than the living wage."

Brandon Lewis said around 1,500 contact tracers had been appointed as of the middle of this week. Credit: Aaron Chown/PA

Sign me up! What does the work involve and what do I have to do?

According to an online advert posted by Workforce Staffing Ltd, a contact tracer in Edinburgh can expect to earn £9.42 per hour – above the minimum wage - for shifts between 8am and 8pm, Monday to Sunday.

It offers an immediate start date, and three months’ employment - but adds it is "expected to be a long-term requirement due to the current pandemic".

Applicants will be required to work from home and need to be "patient, caring and have the ability to handle difficult situations".

It adds: "You will have the responsibility of contacting the general public who will need advice and the best course of action for themselves, family or friends."

There does not appear to be an obvious page on which to apply on the Government’s website.

The recruitment drive has apparently been handed to Serco.

What is Serco?

Serco - the outsourcing giant formally fined more than £19 million last year having "cooked the books" in overcharging the Government to carry out electronic tagging, prompting an audit of its contracts.

It has also run Yarl’s Wood, the much maligned immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire since 2007.

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know: