Testing, contact tracing and self isolation

Last updated: 07 Oct 2022

Anyone who has a high temperature, a new, continuous cough, or has lost their sense of smell or taste, or has noticed that it’s changed in some way, can ask for a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test through the NHS website.

If you have no symptoms and are not eligible for a PCR test for other reasons, you can order lateral flow tests to be sent to your home. While PCR tests are sent to a lab for processing, lateral flow tests are developed at home.

I’m an essential worker – are there special provisions available for me?

Workers whose role is considered essential by the government who are self-isolating because they or someone in their household has symptoms can access priority testing through the GOV.UK website. Anyone who lives with an essential worker can also access priority testing.

What are the different types of test?

There are broadly two types of test to see whether you have the virus: polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and tests which use a lateral flow device (LFD).

The NHS testing programme provides PCR tests, which give an indication of whether the individual has the virus at the time the test is taken. A swab is taken from the individual’s nose or throat and the sample sent off to a lab to look for signs of the virus. This is considered the “gold standard” for COVID-19 testing.

Households can also access LFD tests, which are intended to screen a-symptomatic people for the virus. Some employers also offer LFD tests to their workers. These test return results within 30 minutes. Because these are not as accurate as PCR tests, those who test positive following a lateral flow test must get a PCR test to confirm the result. The entire household must isolate until the result of the PCR test has been returned.

It is important that those who have LFD tests do not consider the results definitive and maintain strict adherence to workplace measures to reduce risk. Screening using LFD tests should only be introduced alongside other measures to control the risk of transmission.

What happens following the test?

If your test is negative, you can leave self isolation, as long as everyone you live with tests negative, and you feel well. If you feel unwell, stay at home until you’re feeling better.

If your test is positive, you must self-isolate for 10 days from the date your symptoms started. Anyone you live with must self-isolate for 10 days from when you start self-isolating.

Find out more about sources of financial support during the COVID-19 pandemic, including sick pay.

Do I have to share the result of the test with my employer or client?

Any test results are personal and it is up to you whether you share the result with your employer or client. The testing programme does not return the results to an employer.

However, the government recommends that you should inform your employer if you test positive for COVID-19. This will enable your employer to take action to support you, for example by providing you with sick pay, and to manage any impact on the organisation, such as arranging for others you work closely with to be tested.

Additionally, if there is reasonable evidence that you contracted COVID-19 from a work-related exposure, your employer is obliged to report this to the Health and Safety Executive.

What is contact tracing and how does it work?

Each nation in the UK has its own contact tracing programme for coronavirus.

Those who test positive for COVID-19 will be contacted by the appropriate contact tracing service and asked to share details of any one they have had close, recent contact and places they have visited. In a workplace, this could be a person who:

  • has had face-to-face contact (within one metre), including:
    • being coughed on
    • having skin-to-skin physical contact, or
    • contact within one metre for one minute
  • has been within two metres of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes
  • has travelled in a vehicle or plane

The contact tracing service may get in touch with you if you have had close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus, in which case you will need to self-isolate for 10 days. Your household doesn’t need to self-isolate with you if you do not have symptoms. You will only be able to book a test if you develop symptoms.

From 16 August 2021, fully vaccinated close contacts will be exempt from the self-isolation requirements.

When you first develop symptoms and order a test, you will be encouraged to alert the people you have had close contact with in the 48 hours before the onset of symptoms. If any of those close contacts are colleagues, you should consider asking your employer or client to alert them. At this stage, close contacts do not need to self-isolate unless requested to do so by NHS Test and Trace or a public health professional.

What must my employer do to support the contact tracing process?

In addition to ensuring that workplaces are thoroughly risk assessed and, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe, employers will need to prepare for the contact tracing programme.

Employers may need to keep staff informed about COVID-19 cases among their colleagues. However, employers should be careful not name individuals.

Employers may use various systems to monitor who is in the workplace to support the contact tracing programmes. Arrangements should only be implemented following the consultation and agreement of the union.

If you are asked to self-isolate by the contact tracing programme, your employer should support you and ensure that you do not feel obliged to come into work. Employers can be fined for allowing employees into the workplace who they know who have tested positive for COVID.

If you are well, your employer should allow you to work from home if it is possible to do so. If it is not, your employer should pay you sick pay or special paid leave.

Employees in self-isolation are entitled to statutory sick pay for every day they are in isolation, as long as they meet the eligibility conditions. Your employer may have a sick pay system that is more generous than the statutory minimum, in which case you would be entitled to receive that.

Find out more about sources of financial support during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If there is more than one case of COVID-19 in a workplace, the employer will need contact the local health protection team to report the suspected outbreak. The health protection team will if necessary undertake a risk assessment; provide public health advice; and, where necessary, establish a management team to tackle the outbreak.

Contact tracing and self isolation in critical services

The UK government has launched a scheme in England which would allow workers carrying out critical services to avoid the need to self isolate when they have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. This only applies to fully vaccinated people who do not have symptoms. If people develop symptoms, whether or not they have had both jabs, they must isolate.

Where employers believe the self-isolation of close contacts would result in a major detrimental impact on the availability, integrity or delivery of essential services, a limited number of named workers may be able to leave self-isolation for the purpose of undertaking critical work.

In these circumstances, employers must apply to the appropriate government department for their sector, providing information on:

  • the number of people who it is proposed would leave self-isolation;
  • the roles those individuals need to perform; and
  • the impact failure to do this would have.

The relevant department will then determine whether the individual cases meet the necessary criteria. If they do, the employer will receive a letter setting out the named critical workers designated and telling them what measures they and those workers need to follow. This is likely to be daily testing.

This policy only applies to you if your employer has received a letter from a government department on which your name is listed.

This process is only intended to run until 16 August 2021, when fully vaccinated close contacts will be exempt from self-isolation.

The Scottish government has announced a similar scheme. Like in England, employers that meet the definition of being Critical National Infrastructure can apply to the Scottish government for their staff to have the exemption.

NHS COVID contact tracing apps

Manual contact tracing programmes are supported by apps. Prospect has received reports that some employers have asked employees to turn off the app’s contact tracing function while they are in the workplace.

Not only does this defeat the point of the app, it is contrary to NHS advice. The NHS says that it’s important you use the app at all times, including while at work, and while wearing PPE, except if you:

  • store your phone in a locker while you’re working
  • are fully protected by a Perspex (or equivalent) screen.