Contact Tracing Service goes ‘digital first’

COVID-19 coronavirus

The Contact Tracing Service (CTS) is today taking a major step forward, moving to a ‘digital first’ model which will provide online self-service contact tracing for the majority of people who test positive. This innovative system will contact people with a positive test result by text message and provide them with a personal code which they can use at a dedicated website to input details of people with whom they were in recent close proximity.

The identity of people using this service will be protected and will not be shared with those whose contact details they have provided. The information collected will only be used for the purpose of contact tracing and learning about the disease.

Dr Gerry Waldron, Head of Health Protection at the Public Health Agency (PHA), said: “Coronavirus is something which all of us have had to adapt to very quickly in the past few months, not least in the health service, with the Test, Trace and Protect system helping to tackle the pandemic here in Northern Ireland. Innovation has been at the heart of this work since the outset, with the introduction of the StopCOVID NI app in July, the move to text alerts for close contacts of positive cases last week, and now the launch of the new digital contact tracing model – Northern Ireland was the first part of the UK to have universal contact tracing of positive cases, and also the first to have a contact tracing app.

“The move to digital first will not only enhance our ability to rapidly alert people who need to self-isolate, but it will create greater capacity for our contact tracers to deal with more complex cases. Most positive cases will go through the digital system by default, but manual contact will still be made with some people who test positive and some contacts where a digital approach is not appropriate, for example those who do not have access to a mobile phone or to the internet, or those who are involved in complex settings. There will be safeguards and checks built into the model to help ensure that the method of engagement is appropriate for each individual who is a positive case or a contact.

“Work has been ongoing to develop this new service, but in light of the enormous and sustained increase in cases in recent days, we have brought forward its launch.  For example, today [9/10/20] 959 cases have been referred into the Contact Tracing Service; this day two weeks ago it was 275 cases; two weeks before that it was 104. The number of positive COVID-19 cases across Northern Ireland increased substantially in week 40 (ending 4th October) by 142% compared with the previous week.

“The current development builds on automation that was introduced last week when we also launched a new text alert service so that contacts of confirmed cases will receive a message asking them to self-isolate as soon as their details are entered into the CTS system. Not only will this increase the speed of contacts being alerted, but it will also free up contact tracer capacity to deal with more complex cases, given the significant number of positive cases coming through the system.

“The decision to expedite the move to digital and accelerate the deployment of more staff into the CTS reflects the rapid rise in cases over a very short time, so we would once again urge people to follow public health guidance to help keep themselves and those around them safe, and also to help ensure that all aspects of our health service can operate effectively.

“Like any part of the health service, we are relying on people sticking to public health advice to avoid significant pressure on services and ultimately to save lives. The numbers of cases in recent days have been far in excess of any reasonable forecast, putting the contact tracing system under extreme pressure, so we would urge everyone to please take action to help protect themselves and those around them – the best way we can tackle coronavirus is by each one of us taking individual responsibility to follow the guidelines.

“We also advise people to download the StopCOVID NI app to help reduce the spread of coronavirus in our community.”

Notes to the editor

The number of positive COVID-19 cases and clusters across Northern Ireland increased substantially in week 40 (by 142% and 69% respectively) compared with the previous week. The Weekly COVID-19 Bulletin, which presents high level data on key areas currently being used to monitor COVID-19 activity and highlights current issues, is available here:

The Contact Tracing Service Management Information Update is available here: