In Depth

Coronavirus: how contact tracing helped Germany out of lockdown

Britain racing to recruit an army of virus-trackers as Germany begins reopening its economy

As restaurants reopen in Berlin (pictured above) and confidence returns to corporate Frankfurt, Germany seems to be blazing a trail out of the coronavirus crisis with a comprehensive track-and-trace system.

“The German economy is beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel,” Reuters reports, with one regional leader saying that he plans to lift all lockdown restrictions within two weeks.

The UK, now busy recruiting its own army of contact tracers, is hoping to follow Germany’s lead.

Testing or tracking?

From the early days of the outbreak, Germany has sought to trace and quarantine anyone who came into contact with a carrier of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

“Epidemiologists say the effort has been essential to the country’s ability to contain its coronavirus outbreak and avoid the larger death tolls seen elsewhere, even with a less stringent shutdown than in other countries,” says The Washington Post.

Germany, with a population of 83 million people, has recorded just over 8,000 deaths from Covid-19. In the UK, which has a population of 66 million, the official death toll stands at almost 37,000.

“The corona detectives are not the only reason for this relatively low mortality rate,” says The Times, “but it could not have been achieved without them.”

Patrick Larscheid, a public health official in Berlin, agrees. He says it was Germany’s contact-tracing programme rather than its extensive and much-praised testing system that checked the spread of the virus.

“Testing is nice, but if you’re tested or not tested and are in quarantine, it makes no difference,” he told the Washington Post.

How the system works

Germany “has carried out a rigorous test and trace programme since the first case of the virus was registered in late January”, says The Guardian.

Although it was initially “hampered by a lack of staff”, the paper reports, hundreds of medical students, firefighters, military health workers and social workers were quickly trained as “containment scouts”.

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Under the system, every patient who tests positive for Covid-19 is contacted by a scout, who asks for the names and phone numbers of anyone the patient has met. The scout then contacts all those people and asks them to go into quarantine.

Unless they have symptoms of the coronavirus, they are not tested.

Coming out of lockdown

The tracing programme appears to be working well, but as restrictions are lifted it will face a new challenge.

“Under lockdown, the average number of contact persons linked to each case fell to about five,” says The Times. “But greater freedom means more contacts. And more contacts mean more work.”

How the UK compares

The UK went into the coronavirus outbreak with a similar track-and-trace approach, but abandoned it in early March. Now, the government is seeking to restart the programme on a much larger scale.

“On paper, the UK’s plan to conduct coronavirus contact tracing is every bit as ambitious as Germany’s,” says Buzzfeed. “The UK government has said it will recruit 18,000 people by the middle of May - a number broadly similar per capita to the German government’s own targets.”

However, the website says, while “Germany’s contact tracing programme is already solidly in place”, it is still unclear how many trackers have been recruited in the UK.

Digital assistance

Germany, like the UK, has had difficulties developing a high-tech solution to speed up the contact-tracing process.

“Germany’s app has been delayed,” says the Washington Post, “and authorities had to reverse course on one that would have involved centrally stored data. Instead, to be mindful of privacy concerns, data will be completely anonymised and won’t be available to health officials.”

Larscheid, the Berlin-based health official, said that compromise would limit the app’s usefulness to his team.

The UK, meanwhile is pressing ahead with a centralised NHS app - although the government is “also hedging its bets by developing in parallel another app” based on the decentralised model adopted by most other countries, the Financial Times reports.

The two countries’ apps have other differences, too: Germany’s will alert people only if they have had contact with someone who tests positive for Covid-19, whereas the UK app will accept self-diagnoses.

It’s a “big gamble”, says BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones. “It could make the app fast and effective, or it could mean users become exasperated by a blizzard of false alarms.”

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