Contact tracing is one of the few tools we have available – apart from social distancing – to try to reduce the reproduction rate, the ‘R number ‘for the coronavirus. You can read the government’s guidance on the R number here.
NHS Test and Trace was launched on 28 May 2020 by Matt Hancock, Health and Social Care Secretary. Baroness Dido Harding has been appointed as the service’s Executive Chair. The aim of the service is “to trace the spread of the virus and isolate new infections and play a vital role in giving us early warning if the virus is increasing again, locally or nationally”.
Those contacted will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days, which has many implications for business. Read this factsheet to understand the role and responsibilities of employers in supporting Test and Trace.
Please note – this factsheet focuses on England only. All four administrations are working together to seek to achieve a consistent and joined-up approach to testing and tracing.
What’s the latest information and insight?
Department of Health and Social Care
Dido Harding has been appointed chair of the government’s test and trace programme. NHS Improvement chair Baroness Harding reports directly to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill. You can read the press release here.
The launch announcement for NHS Test and Trace provides useful orientation on the service.
Guidance for employers, business and workers
The Test and Trace workplace guidance for employers, businesses and workers is found here.
Test and Trace guidance links through to the broader employer guidance, 5 steps for working safely and sector-specific guidance. It is important to follow this guidance to help to reduce the risk of a spread of infection in the workplace.
NHS Coronavirus (COVID-19) app
Following a May pilot on the Isle of Wight the government has abandoned its aim for a de-centralised test and trace app and is now working with Google/Apple. No target launch date for an app has been announced.
NHS test and trace ‘performance reporting’
There’s intense ongoing interest, from many quarters, in the performance of NHS Test and Trace.
- It’s been announced that statistics on the test and trace system will be reported weekly
- The weekly reports are found here
- An NHS test and trace statistics (England) methodology has been published.
Overview of the service
The overview of the Test and Trace service is found here. Below is a select extract:
- If you test positive for coronavirus, the NHS Test and Trace service will send you a text or email alert, or call you with instructions of how to share the details of people with whom you have had close, recent contact and the places you have visited.
- If you are contacted by the NHS Test and Trace service because you have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus:
- Alert: the alert will usually come by text, email or phone call. You should then log on to the NHS Test and Trace website, which is normally the easiest way to communicate with the service. But if you’d prefer to speak to someone, a trained call handler will talk you through the process. Under-18s will get a phone call and a parent or guardian will be asked to give permission for the call to continue
- Isolate: you will be told to begin self-isolation for 14 days from your last contact with the person who has tested positive. It’s important to do this even if you don’t feel unwell, because if you have been infected, you could infect others at any point up to 14 days. Your household doesn’t need to self-isolate with you if you do not have symptoms, but they must take extra care to follow the guidance on social distancing and handwashing and avoid contact with you at home
- Test if needed: if you develop symptoms, other members of your household must self-isolate immediately at home for 14 days, and you must book a test by visiting www.nhs.uk/coronavirus or calling 119. If your test is positive, you must continue to stay at home for at least seven days, and we will get in touch to ask about your contacts, since they must self-isolate too. If your test is negative, you must still complete your 14-day self-isolation period because the virus may not be detectable yet. This is crucial to avoid unknowingly spreading the virus.
Understanding the tests available
- The NHS guidance for those told by the NHS Test and Trace service that they have been in contact with a person who has coronavirus (COVID-19)
- Test and Trace website
- To request a coronavirus test
- Self-isolation guidance
- 119 is the number to call to book a coronavirus test
Public Health England
You can read the guidance for contacts of people with confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) infection who do not live with the person here.
A ‘contact’ is a person who has been close to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 anytime from two days before the person was symptomatic up to seven days from onset of symptoms (this is when they are infectious to others). For example, a contact can be:
- People who spend significant time in the same household as a person who has tested positive
- Sexual partners
- A person who has had face-to-face contact (within one metre), including:
- Being coughed on
- Having a face-to-face conversation within one metre
- Having skin-to-skin physical contact, or
- Contact within one metre for one minute or longer without face-to-face contact
- A person who has been within two metres of someone who has tested positive for more than 15 minutes
- A person who has travelled in a small vehicle with someone who has tested positive or in a large vehicle or plane near someone who has tested positive.
Where an interaction between two people has taken place through a Perspex (or equivalent) screen, this would not be considered sufficient contact, provided there has been no other contact such as any of those indicated above.
Information Commissioner’s Office
The Information Commissioner’s office (ICO) has produced specific information on data protection in relation to workplace testing for Coronavirus as well as general guidance on broader data protection issues related to the pandemic.
HM Revenue and Customs
Statutory Sick Pay
Employees in self-isolation are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay for every day they are in isolation, provided they meet the eligibility conditions. You can read the guidance on this here.
SMEs can claim a rebate for SSP for one 14-day isolation per employee. They will need a Coronavirus isolation note from their employee to make the claim.
Test and Trace compliance is voluntary. But in the spirit of supporting public health the government is asking all firms to make their workplaces COVID-secure, encourage staff to follow isolation instructions and support them during that time.
This includes enabling people to work from home if they remain well, ensuring they receive appropriate sick pay and giving them the option to use their paid leave days during their period of isolation if they prefer.
There is no legal obligation for those with a positive COVID-19 test to share details of their positive status, contacts or movements. There is also no legal obligation on those contacted and requested to self-isolate for 14 days to do so.
Considerations for businesses
Consider the impact on workers of being contacted by NHS test and trace
- Self-isolation for 14 days in accordance with the NHS guidelines will be especially difficult for some employees and may affect their mental health. Employers should continue to communicate with staff during this period
- Workers have no legal obligation to tell their employer that they have been told to isolate so employers may wish to make this a requirement through their health & safety policies
- Workers will be less likely to follow public health guidance to self-isolate if they have financial or job security concerns
- Employees could be requested to self-isolate more than once, including because people who live with individuals with coronavirus symptoms are also required to isolate.
Factor test and trace into reopening risk assessment plans
Despite it not being mandatory to follow self-isolation instructions, employers are likely to include requiring compliance with test and trace notifications as part of their risk assessments and safe reopening rules.
Firms should prioritise sharing information about the test and trace system with their workers and a key part of this should be clearly communicating the steps that workers need to take if they are contacted. It is also important that workers understand the health and safety measures that firms have introduced to the workplace and can communicate them. This could help to avoid unnecessary isolations as workers will be able to tell test and trace agents about relevant measures in place to reduce risk of transmission (such as Perspex screens).
Employers should ensure that they’re fulfilling their duty of care to their whole workforce by seeking to prevent individuals with, or at risk of having, coronavirus from entering the workplace This includes workers who present a Coronavirus self-isolation note.
Employers should take particular care to mitigate the risk of transmission within the workplace in the areas where it is known to be at its highest. Employers should closely follow ‘Covid-secure’ guidance to ensure their workplace is operating safely. Employers should pay attention to ensuring social distancing in communal areas, entrances, social areas, canteens and smoking areas. Be mindful of arrangements for breaks and end of shift patterns. You can read the government’s guidance on working safely here.
Be explicit in explaining how the business will support those with a coronavirus self-isolation note
Businesses are concerned that the financial support available to workers told to isolate could deter them from following isolation advice, particularly when asymptomatic.
People are not eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) if they are ‘workers’ or self-employed or earn below £120 a week. SSP is paid at just under £96 per week. SSP rates could simultaneously be a financial penalty for employees who cannot work because of isolation, and an unsustainable cost-burden for employers as the rebate is limited to small firms for no more than one 14-day absence period per employee. The costs for firms that offer occupational sick pay could also be much higher.
Firms of all sizes are concerned about increased cost-pressures as employees could be told to isolate for multiple periods. The financial support available from government is continuing to evolve and we are encouraging the government to consider additional support for firms and individuals.
However, employers should be explicit in their communication with workers of the level of support that their business can offer to people unable to work because they are sick or asked to isolate.
Keep up to date with the criteria for self- isolation
Businesses understand that anyone who has been within two metres of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes will be asked to isolate.
Construction sites, food processing factories and manufacturing plants are among those implementing other measures to ensure their workplaces are ‘COVID-secure’ because work cannot always be performed at a two-metre distance.
At present, test and trace will only consider an individual not to be a contact where the interaction between two people has taken place through a Perspex (or equivalent) screen. Other measures employers take to be COVID-secure are not considered part of the test and trace assessment of who needs to isolate.
Analysis of the first two weeks of NHS Test and Trace performance data show that an average of six people are identified as contacts per positive COVID-19 test.
Businesses should consider how they would respond if several workers were asked to self-isolate at once.
Be mindful of GDPR in relation to data collection and sharing
Businesses are committed to the highest standards of data protection. Firms recognise the vital importance of protecting the sensitive data involved in test and trace, in order to maintain employee trust in the use of their personal data while reducing the spread of the infection.
Health data is special category data under GDPR, so you need a legal reason to process it. Two examples of where processing may be acceptable are:
- To meet Health and Safety obligations
- Where there is substantial public interest.
Be proportionate in how your organisation uses and stores the information. Ensure that it is secure.
The CBI has engaged closely with the ICO on data protection during Covid-19 and values the pragmatic approach and practical guidance that has been developed. Close co-ordination between regulators, public health bodies and the test & trace team will be essential to maintaining joined-up cohesive guidance. Businesses are seeking further clarity on the interaction between employment responsibilities and data privacy requirements, particularly where the guidance interacts with GDPR.
Businesses should ensure that they are familiar with the ICO guidance below:
Without greater public health certainty of incubation and immunity related to COVID-19, firms should encourage their staff to follow Test and Trace insolation instructions and not ask them to work if they are sick or cannot leave their home. While the government is considering workplace testing as part of its long-term strategy, it does not currently inform who Test and Trace ask to isolate. So, workers should follow isolation instructions, even where independent tests suggest they do not have the virus.
However, as part of risk mitigation, some businesses are evaluating whether to facilitate workplace testing as part of ensuring safe workplaces and supporting staff with prompt access to appropriate health care. As public health guidance becomes more certain and accessibility widens, this could be an option for more businesses to continue to operate safely.
Offering access to independent and repeat testing may be an option to mitigate risk and ensure a safe working environment for some businesses. It should be evaluated against the latest public health advice and does not presently replace Test and Trace isolation instructions.
NHS Test and Trace have published ‘Frequently asked questions for workplaces’ which can be viewed here. A few examples are given below:
Can employers be involved with their employees on contact tracing calls (particularly about those living on site/ English isn’t their first language)?
If an employee gives consent for their employer or next of kin to be involved in a discussion with the Test and Trace service, then they would be allowed to.
What if an employee tests positive for coronavirus and self-isolates but asks their employer not to share their medical information? Does data confidentiality mean that the employer can’t alert other employees that this person has been in contact with so they can self-isolate?
The employer should honour the employee’s right to privacy. The employee would submit the details of close contacts to the Test and Trace service, which would then let a co-worker know if they have been in close contact with a positive case and should self-isolate, without disclosing the identity of the person who has tested positive. This protects the privacy and anonymity of those who test positive while still enabling close contacts to be informed.
Can I request information to see who has potentially infected my employees - e.g. other employees/ customers?
The NHS Test and Trace system will not share any data with employers for privacy reasons.
If there is an outbreak what should I do?
If there is more than one case of COVID-19 associated with a workplace, employers should contact their local Health Protection Team to report the suspected outbreak. The Health Protection Team will undertake a risk assessment, provide public health advice and where necessary establish a multi-agency Incident Management Team to manage the outbreak. You can find your local health protection team here.
Will local health protection teams contact employers?
The current escalation criteria to tier one local health protection teams includes escalation if exposure is in the workplace where the case is unable to name contacts (this is both automated if self-completed and via the case workers if phone based). Tier two and tier three case workers are also advised to escalate if it is likely to have a significant impact on the public sector.
How fast would employers be contacted by local health protection teams?
This will depend on the nature of the situation and actions required – the health protection team would seek to make contact if needed as quickly as possible to ensure the appropriate risk assessment and advice is provided.
Is this service 24/7 – would an employer be contacted at the weekend for example?
The health protection team does provide a seven day a week service and would contact the employer if deemed necessary. The Test and Trace programme runs from 8am-8pm seven days a week. It is unlikely that employers would be contacted after 8pm unless it was deemed to be a public health emergency.
This factsheet is based on the current guidance for England. The devolved nations are working together to seek to achieve a consistent and joined-up approach to testing and tracing.