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The NHS Test and Trace (NHSTT) programme was established in May 2020 in England to deliver SARS-CoV-2 testing and contact tracing in order to identify infected individuals and reduce COVID-19 spread. To further control transmission, people identified as contacts were asked to self-isolate for 10 days and test only if they became symptomatic. From March 2021, eligibility criteria for PCR testing expanded to include asymptomatic contacts of confirmed cases.


To analyse testing patterns of contacts before and after the change in testing guidance in England to assess the impact on PCR testing behaviour with respect to symptom status and contact type.


Testing and contact tracing data were extracted from the national data systems and linked. Subsequently, descriptive statistical analysis was applied to identify trends in testing behaviour.


Between 1 January and 31 July 2021, over 5 million contacts were identified and reached by contact tracers; 42.3% took a PCR test around the time they were traced. Overall positivity rate was 44.3% and consistently higher in symptomatic (60–70%) than asymptomatic (around 20%, March–June) contacts. The proportion of tests taken by asymptomatic contacts increased over time, especially after the change in testing guidance. No link was observed between uptake of PCR tests and vaccination coverage. Fully vaccinated contacts showed lower positivity (23.8%) than those with one dose (37.2%) or unvaccinated (51.0%).


Almost 1 million asymptomatic contacts were tested for SARS-CoV-2, identifying 214,056 positive cases, demonstrating the value of offering PCR testing to this group.


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