Testing and contact tracing

The following groups of people can ask for a test through the NHS website:

  • anyone in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who has symptoms of coronavirus
  • anyone who lives, works or studies in an area with a coronavirus outbreak, whether or not they have symptoms (find out where this applies to).

There are two ways of getting this test. You can:

  • book an appointment at a drive-through or walk-through test site
  • ask for a home test kit, which you must return to a lab within 48 hours.

You need to get the test done in the first five days of having symptoms, but it is most effective within three days of symptoms developing.

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

Essential and key workers in all four nations of the UK 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.

Find out if your occupation makes you an essential worker in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

There are two routes for essential workers and their households to secure tests: self referral or employer referral. If referred by your employer, you will receive a text message with a unique invitation code to book a test for yourself or your symptomatic household member(s) at a regional testing site.

What are the different types of test?

The test booked through the NHS testing programme provides an indication of whether an 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.

Some employers have also made arrangements for private testing of workers as a way of screening people for the virus. The test only provides validation that the individual was free of the virus when they took the test. It should only be introduced alongside other measures to control the risk of transmission.

There is another test, the antibody test, to check if you’ve had coronavirus. These use a drop of blood to see if coronavirus antibodies are present. This test is not widely available yet. It does not work for everyone, as some people who’ve had the virus do not have antibodies.

It is currently unclear as to whether people who have had the virus have immunity and, if they do, the extent of that immunity.

What happens following the test?

If your test is negative you do not need to self-isolate, as long as:

  • everyone you live with who has symptoms tests negative
  • everyone in your support bubble who has symptoms tests negative
  • you were not told to self-isolate for 14 days by NHS Test and Trace – if you were, see below
  • you feel well – if you feel unwell, stay at home until you’re feeling better

If your test is positive, you must self-isolate.

  • If you had a test because you had symptoms, keep self-isolating for at least 7 days from when your symptoms started.
  • If you had a test but have not had symptoms, self-isolate for 7 days from when you had the test.
  • Anyone you live with, and anyone in your support bubble, must self-isolate for 14 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?

The testing programme does not return the results to an employer, even if it arranged the test.

Any test results are personal and it is up to you whether you share the result with your employer or client.

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.

If you test positive for COVID-19, you will be contacted by the appropriate contact tracing service, which will ask you to share details of any people with whom you have had close, recent contact and places you 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

What do I need to go if I’m contacted by the contact trace service?

The contact tracing service may get in touch with you if you have had close contact with someone who subsequently tests positive for the virus.

If you are told that you’ve been in contact with a person who has coronavirus:

  • stay at home for 14 days from the day you were last in contact with the person (it can take up to 14 days for symptoms to appear)
  • do not have visitors in your home
  • try to avoid contact with anyone you live with as much as possible

People you live with or those in your support bubble do not need to self-isolate if you do not have symptoms

You can book a test only if you subsequently develop symptoms, in which case other members of your household must self-isolate at home for 14 days.

  • If your test is positive, you must continue to stay at home for at least seven days. The contact tracing service is likely to ask you to provide the details of anyone you have been in close contact with, since they will also need to isolate.
  • If your test is negative, you must complete your 14-day isolation period.

When you first develops 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. However, you should take extra care with physical distancing and avoid contact with people at high increased risk of severe illness from coronavirus. You may need to speak to your line manager to help facilitate this.

If the person with symptoms tests positive for COVID-19, the NHS Test and Trace service will notify their close contacts and instruct them to self-isolate.

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 the individual(s) affected.

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, your employer should support you and ensure that you do not feel obliged to come into work. 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 consider paying 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.