Track and Trace and The Science behind Social Distancing


track and trace


In the UK, COVID-19 lockdown measures are beginning to ease, aiming to bring back some normality to daily life and give the economy a chance to recover. However, it is imperative that this is done in a safe way, to avoid a second wave of infection.

This article will provide all you need to know about Test, Track and Trace, and compare the different social distancing systems in countries around the world. The WHO recommends a 1 metre distance, some countries operate a 1:5 metre and others (like us a 2 metre) – what measure is safe?


Safe social distancing – 1m or 2m?


Different countries have different social distancing limits in place which can affect transmission of the virus.

The World Health Organization says that a distance of 1m is safe. Some countries have adopted this guidance, while others, including the UK, have gone further:

1m distancing rule – China, Denmark, France, Hong Kong, Lithuania, Singapore

1.4m – South Korea

1.5m – Australia, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal

1.8m – US

2m – Canada, Spain, UK

The government has come under pressure from MPs and businesses to relax the 2m (6ft) rule for social distancing. This will make it easier for people to return to work and for businesses top operate. However, this comes with safety concerns and calls that a sophisticated system of track and trace should also be in place if social distancing was lessened.

There are other factors at play here too, such as timing. The longer you spend in close proximity with an infected person, the greater the risk.

Scientists advising the UK government stated that spending six seconds at a distance of 1m from someone is the same as spending one minute at a distance of 2m.

Being exposed to someone coughing is riskier. Being 2m away from a cough carries the same risk as someone talking to you for 30 minutes at the same distance.

Additionally, many scientists regard closeness and surface contacts as the main routes of transmission.

There is also wide agreement that the infection is more easily passed on indoors than outside in the fresh air. In many countries, including England and Scotland, people are being encouraged to wear face coverings on public transport. Also this is required in hospitals and “enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible”. The UK is going a step further and making this law.


What is track and trace and will it work?


Boris Johnson has said that there will be a test, track and trace system in place by the end of June. In a nutshell, test, track and trace – TTT – means testing people for coronavirus, tracking the spread of the virus, then tracing the people an infected person has come into contact with.


According to the NHS website, the NHS test and trace service:

  • ensures that anyone who develops symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19) can quickly be tested to find out if they have the virus. It also includes targeted asymptomatic testing of NHS and social care staff and care home residents.
  • helps trace close recent contacts of anyone who tests positive for coronavirus. If necessary, it will notify them that they must self-isolate at home to help stop the spread of the virus.


How does track and trace help fight the virus?


The NHS test and trace service will help to control the rate of reproduction (R), reduce the spread of the infection and save lives.

You can help in the following ways:

  • If you develop symptoms, you must continue to follow the rules to self-isolate. Do this with other members of your household. Order a test to find out if you have coronavirus.
  • You must share information promptly about your recent contacts if you test positive for coronavirus. Do this through the NHS test and trace service. This will help them to alert other people who may need to self-isolate.
  • if you have had close recent contact with someone who has coronavirus, you must self-isolate if the NHS test and trace service advises you to do so.


What stage are we currently at with this service?


An app is being tested on the Isle of Wight. It is expected to be launched to the rest of the UK by the end of June, if it proves successful. The app went live on the island on May 5.

NHSX is the NHS’s technology and research arm. They developed the app with researchers from Oxford University. They are also using developers from tech companies like VMWare.

Great Britain is planning to use trained teams to find people who have coronavirus symptoms. They will make thousands of calls a day to track the spread of Covid-19/. All of which will be complemented by the contact-tracing app.

On May 27, the government revealed details of its manual track and trace system. For now, this is without a contact-tracing app, whilst we wait for this to be approved.


How does the app work?


The purpose of the contact-tracing app is to try and track down people and alert them of the need to self-isolate faster than traditional methods.

Users who download the app to their phone can voluntarily opt-in to record details of their symptoms when they start to feel unwell.

The app keeps a trace of others who have been in close contact through Bluetooth signals that transmit an anonymous ID. These low energy Bluetooth signals perform a digital “handshake” when two users come into close contact. The data is anonymous.

If an individual later reports that they are positive for coronavirus. It will then ping a message to people who have been in close-contact with them in the last 28 days. This is based on their anonymous IDs.

The app will recommend those people self-isolate in case they have contracted the disease. Those contacted won’t know the identity of the person who may have passed on coronavirus.

If the person then takes a test and tests negative, they may be released from their self-isolation. They will receive a notification through the app.


Why is this measure in place?


The track and trace service aims to help life return to normal, in a way that is safe and protects our NHS and social care. The service will allow us to trace the spread of the virus and isolate new infections. It will play a vital role in giving us early warning if the virus is increasing again, locally or nationally.


What are other countries doing to control the virus?


Since mid-March, the World Health Organization has urged countries to scale up the testing, isolation and contact tracing of Covid-19 patients to combat the pandemic. Countries that initiated test and trace regimes early – including Germany, South Korea, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Canada – have fared better than those that did not.

Germany demonstrated an effective system. The country has carried out a rigorous test and trace programme since the first case of the virus was registered in late January. The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) is the government’s main advisory body on public health. It has repeatedly referred to the programme as a basic epidemiological tool necessary for the virus’s containment.


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