COVID-19: How is testing and contact tracing being used in Northern Ireland and beyond?

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Dr Janice Thompson and Sinéad McMurray

An image showing coronavirus molecules over a map


This article is based on information extracted from the RaISe briefing paper: Testing for Sars-CoV-2 in the UK; and the Use of Testing and Contact Tracing in Selected Countries (published 4 May 2020).

For wider context, this article is best read in conjunction with that paper, which focused on reviewing the approaches to testing, contact tracing and related measures taken in NI, as part of the UK pandemic response. It also looked at a number of selected countries which have taken a range of different approaches in this regard. The paper highlighted the importance of both timely testing and contact tracing to drive suppression of transmission of the virus to a low-level, to enable or maintain parts of economic and social life.


Countries across the world are at different stages of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. By 13 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for intensified action and stressed that countries should take a comprehensive approach:

Not testing alone, not contact tracing alone. Not quarantine alone. Not social distancing alone. Do it all. Find, isolate, test and treat every case…

By then, governments across the world were taking various approaches. Some based their response on decreasing contact between people to slow transmission of the virus; for example, some closed schools and imposed social distancing measures/’lockdowns’ and tested those who were seriously ill for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes the illness COVID-19). Others, but not the UK, focused on more widespread testing, contact tracing and quarantining.

The WHO has consistently called for extensive testing of all suspected cases so that confirmed cases are isolated and receive care, and their close contacts are rapidly identified so that they can also self-isolate/be quarantined and monitored. It recently highlighted that in countries where there has been early implementation of that approach, for example South Korea, the spread of COVID-19 has been suppressed below the threshold at which health systems become unable to prevent excess mortality.

However, in places where community transmission has led to outbreaks with near exponential growth (for example in Italy, Spain, UK), countries were forced to introduce widespread physical distancing measures and movement restrictions (‘lockdown’) in order to slow the spread. For such countries, there is now an urgent need to plan for a phased transition away from such restrictions to enable the suppression of transmission of the virus to a low-level, whilst enabling the resumption of parts of economic and social life.

Diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2 and post-infection antibody testing

The diagnostic test involves molecular diagnosis using ‘real-time RT-PCR (RdRp gene) assay’ with swab samples taken from the nose, throat and deeper respiratory tract. Laboratory technicians then look for genetic sequences specific to the virus in the sample. In Northern Ireland (NI), the Health Minister, Robin Swann MLA, recently stated that he is seeking to increase diagnostic testing capacity working with laboratories outside of the traditional health and care sector in NI and to investigate the scope for manufacturing the necessary reagents.

Post-infection, the antibody test works by looking for signs of immunity, by using a drop of the person’s blood. In the UK, a reliable laboratory-based antibody test is in use at the Public Health England (PHE) laboratory at Porton Down, but it is currently reserved to estimate population-level immunity and not to give individuals information about their antibody status. Recent progress in this area has been rapid in sourcing an antibody test for more widespread use in the UK. Media reports on 4 May 2020 stated that a first widespread antibody test could soon be approved for use in the UK by PHE. Such tests are already being used in other countries. For example, Germany is the first European country to carry out a large-scale antibody testing study. It is hoped that this will provide more information on how many people have antibodies, at what levels, and what protection they offer against the virus.

Review of approaches taken in other countries

The table below summarises a substantial amount of information taken from the full RaISe paper on the approaches being currently taken to ‘lockdowns’, social distancing, testing and contact tracing in a selection of countries. The paper should be consulted for the relevant references. It provides significantly more detail on each country’s approaches, its measures, and also outlines the ‘evolution’ of the pandemic response in NI (as part of the UK-wide response).

Countries include the Republic of Ireland, as NI’s nearest neighbour, and also New Zealand and South Korea who have managed to control community transmission of the virus through rigorous testing and tracing. South Korea (and other Asian countries) had a head start on contact tracing plans through its response to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015. Sweden, considered an outlier with regard to its ‘light touch’ to managing the virus, is considered alongside Germany whose rigorous testing and tracing approach is being highlighted as a key reason for its low mortality rate. France, Spain and Italy all received significant domestic criticism for their testing regimens in the early stages of the pandemic but now have a renewed focus on testing as a key part of their exit strategies.


  What social distancing and movement restrictions are in place? What are the current testing strategies? Who is being prioritised for testing? How are close contacts being traced and managed?  






Northern Ireland

‘Lockdown’ enacted and enforceable in line with UK-wide response.

  • Public required to stay at home, except for limited purposes (e.g. health, work where necessary, one form of exercise per day, basic shopping);
  • All non-essential shops and venues closed; and
  • Schools closed and gatherings banned.


Supported by legislation:

Coronavirus Act 2020



Short term:

Expanded diagnostic testing by broadening the categories of workers/ patients approved for testing.

Expanding testing capacity:

Consortium between QUB, UU, C-TRIC[1], and AFBI[2] to scale up diagnostic testing, including local production of reagents.

Wider surveillance testing using samples from:

  • GP practices using the ‘Influenza GP Spotter Surveillance System’; and
  • Those who attend Emergency Departments.

Medium to Long term:

  • Population Surveillance – antibody testing in line with wider UK plans;
  • Point of Care testing development e.g. for triage and management of patients attending emergency departments; and
  • Linking health data sets (e.g. genomics) to improve understanding of immunity, co-morbidities & outbreaks.

Healthcare workers.

Key workers who are self-isolating and /or their family members who have symptoms including those working in:

  • Postal, health, utilities, food production and agriculture workers;
  • Any government department; and
  • Health Safety Executive.

Staff and patients in care homes, specifically:

  • Those in high risk homes; and
  • Patients admitted to care home from any setting (e.g. from hospital).

Those admitted to Hospital for Emergency and Elective care.

Early ‘containment phase’, small numbers of cases who became unwell after travel to affected areas were tested and their contacts traced and tested to establish if such transmission had occurred. This ceased once ‘delay phase’ started in mid-March.

Pilot led by Public Health Agency to inform NI-wide contact tracing and management system as part of UK-wide plans going forward – to support easing of ‘lockdown’.

Initial focus on priority groups where clusters may be present, starting with care homes.

There are UK plans to introduce a contact tracing ‘app’ but the type/technology has not been confirmed. Currently in trial on Isle of Wight.

NI Health Minister calling for any contact tracing ‘apps’ used in the UK to be the same or technically compatible so that information can be shared.









Republic of Ireland

Similar to UK, ‘lockdown’ enacted and enforceable:

  • Public are required to stay at home, except for very limited purposes (as above for NI and UK-wide)

Supported by legislation:
Health Act 2020

Phase one of lifting the restrictions begins 18 May.

Short term:

Priority still being given to those with one symptom of COVID-19 and belonging to a priority group (see next column)

Expansion of diagnostic testing: Consideration currently being given to removal of membership of a priority group as grounds for testing.

Medium to long Term:

Develop and expand antibody testing capacity (currently not available)

Priority groups for testing:

  •  Close contacts of a case;
  • Frontline Healthcare (FHCW) workers;
  • Those who are ‘cocooning’;
  • People who live with a FHCW or with those ‘cocooning’;
  • Staff and residents in nursing home/residential care settings;
  • Those in direct provision, homeless, Roma and travelling community settings; and
  • Pregnant women.
Extensive contact tracing service in operation since 10th March:

  • Eight contact tracing centres with 1,500 staff; and
  • 8am-9pm rotational shifts.

Future plans:

  • Expanding tracing capabilities alongside testing;
  • Legally enforceable quarantine for suspected cases while waiting on results; and
  • Contact Tracing ‘app’ to be released in June.

South Korea


Moderate approach focused on:

  • Voluntary Social Distancing and public co-operation
  • Some travel restriction and schools closed.
Continuation of mass diagnostic testing through:

  • 653 testing clinics & 50 drive through test centres; and
  • Results returned by text message within 24 hours.

Expand antibody testing – began in early April and currently rolling out the programme on a larger scale.


A person can be tested if they:

  • Have been referred by GP;
  • Are a returning traveller;
  • Had contact with someone known to be infected; and
  • Belong to an at-risk group.

People who do not belong to those categories but wish to be tested are charged for test but reimbursed if the result is positive.

Ongoing contact tracing (manual and ICT methods) and quarantine programme using:

  • Infected persons movements traced using CCTV footage, credit card data & past geolocation data;
  • Alerts sent via smartphones to districts where case has been; and
  • Close contacts required to test and if necessary self-isolate – mandatory fines and imprisonment for violation.






New Zealand

Early enactment of strict four stage ‘lockdown’:

  • All borders closed indefinitely;
  • Non-essential businesses and schools shut;
  • Non-essential travel banned; and
  • Daily exercise permitted.

Have now downgraded to phase 3 of ‘lockdown’ with some lifting of restrictions.

Short term:

Comprehensive diagnostic testing programme of priority groups to continue.

In the process of expanding programme to include broader based community testing by loosening categories of priority groups.

Medium Term:

Will consider antibody testing when reliable test are confirmed:

  • National laboratory ESR, in the process of validating tests.
Priority groups include:

  • Individuals displaying one or more symptoms of virus;
  • Close contacts of any suspected or confirmed cases; and
  • Inbound travellers.


Comprehensive manual tracing programme using National Close Contact Tracing Service.

Close contacts will still be required to self-isolate until test results confirm status.

Mandatory quarantining of returning citizens at border with movements traced using text message alerts.

Consideration being given to development of ‘app’ to automate some tracing capabilities but not in immediate plans.







Strict Federal & State level social distancing measures:

  • Non-essential shops closed & work from home where possible; and
  • Mass gathering banned;
  • No unnecessary travel; and
  • Group meetings limited to two people outside house

Lifting of restrictions began 20th April.

Short term:

Continue with mass diagnostic testing programme of priority groups through hospitals, GP practices and drive thru testing stations.

Trialling antibody testing regionally and using a large nationwide sample – waiting for approval from German Ethics Council before expanding to nationwide programme.

A person can be tested where they:

  • Display symptoms or have been in contact with a confirmed case and have been referred by doctor.

Block testing of medical staff in some hospitals (e.g. group of 10 samples only test individuals if group sample is positive).

Government is currently limiting testing of asymptomatic people to ensure test supply.

Rigorous contact tracing policy:

Every person who has come into contact with an infected patient in the previous two weeks is tracked down and tested.

In the process of developing an ‘app’ tracing system to automate some of the contact tracing process.





Minimal approach:

  • Relying on self-regulation;
  • Citizens take individual responsibility within a framework of recommendations; and
  • Some legislation e.g. visits to care homes.
In the process of expanding diagnostic testing by broadening categories of eligible groups – previously only those admitted to hospital were tested.

Antibody testing study has been carried out in Stockholm with plans to extend further.

Groups being tested include:

  • Health or elderly care workers who are displaying symptoms;
  • Those who are severely ill and need hospital care; and
  • High risk groups.
Limited information on contact tracing and management system in Sweden is available – understood to be happening at a regional level with extent of tracing varying per region.





‘Lockdown’ measures comparable with other EU countries – Regulations in place.

France has outlined a ‘progressive and controlled’ exit strategy which will begin 11 May.

Renewed focus on expanding diagnostic testing by:

  • Increasing capacity; and
  • Expanding categories of those being tested.

Domestic media reporting that antibody testing will be rolled out in May/June.

Categories originally included anyone showing symptoms who was also an:

  • Elderly care home resident;
  • Healthcare worker; and
  • Pregnant woman.

Now anyone who displays symptoms and has been seen by a GP can be tested.

Contact tracing being ramped up in line with testing:

  • ‘Brigades’ of investigators have been established to track infection lines; and
  • Goverment are developing an ‘app’system to complement manual system.
Spain Full lockdown enacted with no outdoor activity outside of essential trips – Regulations in place. Significantly expanding diagnostic testing with increase in production of local tests and procuring international equipment.

Conducting antibody testing using a sample of 36,000 households.

Previously testing focused on those infected or suspected of having COVID-19.

Now there is a specific focus on testing asymptomatic carriers who are working in essential services.

Extensive contact tracing system being established.

Voluntary isolation units for those who cannot isolate at home.

Considering laws to enforce isolation where there is non-compliance.



Differences in the policies in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic in various countries have been highlighted in the success or otherwise of minimising the transmission of the virus and the severity of the ‘lockdowns’ that have been required. South Korea, New Zealand and Germany have been highlighted as being very successful with their regimes of testing, followed by rigorous contact tracing and the quarantine/self-isolation of close contacts. However, New Zealand and Germany also have ‘lockdown’ policies; South Korea did not impose such draconian measures.

Until the end of March 2020, the majority of tests in the UK had been done on seriously ill hospital patients with symptoms of the virus. Throughout April, all regions of the UK have been ramping up diagnostic tests for healthcare and other key workers and vulnerable groups. This lack of testing compared to other countries appears largely to have been due to lack of capacity at the time. Only with the increasing capacity to test now available can the UK look to implement a substantial regime of testing and contact tracing in the hope of easing out of ‘lockdown’.

Experts, academics and scientists across the world are continually working on and publishing developments and proposals with regards to testing – both for improvements to the current tests for the virus and for antibody tests to check whether someone is likely to be immune having recovered from the virus. Both are key to moving forward:

  • To determine as quickly as possible where and when new cases are emerging through diagnostic testing and contact tracing; and
  • To pinpoint individuals who have already been infected through an antibody test.



[1] Clinical Translational Research and Innovation Centre (C-TRIC ) on the Altnagelvin Hospital site in Derry/Londonderry.

[2]  Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute.