Covid: What is a close contact? What to do if you’re identified as a close contact - and when to self-isolate

As new daily coronavirus cases reach record highs in the UK, here’s what it means to be identified as a close contact and when you need to self-isolate.

Covid: What is a close contact? What to do if you’re identified as a close contact - and when to self-isolate (Image credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Covid: What is a close contact? What to do if you’re identified as a close contact - and when to self-isolate (Image credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

With the UK and Scotland respectively seeing daily coronavirus cases break previous records, thousands of people across the country are being identified as close contacts and told to either self-isolate or perform daily Covid tests.

Scotland reported 15,849 new Covid cases on Wednesday, while the UK as a whole saw its daily positive case count rise to 183,037.

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The sharp rise in Covid cases as a result of the fast-spreading Omicron variant is expected to see daily positive cases break more records in the coming days and weeks, with the impact of renewed capacity limits on indoor and outdoor events, as well as new Covid rules in bars and restaurants in Scotland, yet to be seen.

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And with self-isolation rules still differing in England and Scotland, there is increasing confusion over what a close contact is, when to self-isolate and what to do if you are identified as a close contact of someone confirmed to have Covid-19.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is a close contact?

A close contact is someone who has been in close proximity to someone who has Covid-19, and therefore is at risk of having the virus too and passing it onto others.

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In Scotland, close contacts have now been split into two separate categories: household close contacts and non-household close contacts.

Household close contacts are primarily those who live with someone confirmed to have Covid-19, symptoms or who has tested positive on a lateral flow test.

But household close contacts are also those who have spent eight hours or more in the home of the person who has tested positive during their infectious period, are a sexual contact who does not usually live with the person who has tested positive or a cleaner working in the home of someone who has tested positive.

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Non-household close contacts are those who have had close contact with someone who has coronavirus, but do not live in the same household as the infected person.

You are more likely to become a non-household close contact if you have been interacting with someone from outside your household in a smaller, more intimate indoor space or venue.

According to the NHS, examples of close contact include face-to-face contact with another person within less than a metre of space for any length of time, including talking to them or being coughed on, being within one metre of each other for over a minute and being within two metres of another person for over 15 minutes in a single day.

You could also be a close contact if you have travelled in a compact space on public transport with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.

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How will I be identified as a close contact?

There are a number of ways in which you might find out that you have been in close contact with someone who has coronavirus depending on where you live.

For those living in Scotland, you could be contacted by NHS Test & Protect after a member of their contact tracing team has been in touch with someone following a positive PCR test.

When you test positive for Covid-19 and have had this confirmed with a PCR test, NHS Test & Protect will get in touch with you to help identify who you might have had contact with recently.

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They will contact you by phone or text message to ask you who is in your household, who you might have been in close physical contact with recently and where you have recently been.

After deciding which of the people above could have a chance of being infected, based on the time spent with you and physical proximity, they will contact these people to instruct them to self isolate and book a test.

You can find out more about this process on the NHS Inform website here.

Likewise, if you use the Protect Scotland app from NHS Test & Protect, you should be informed if you have been in contact with another app user who has tested positive for Covid-19 in Scotland.

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For those in England and Wales, the NHS Test and Trace app works in much the same fashion – with those identified as a close contact either receiving an email, text or phone call from NHS Test and Trace or an alert from the NHS COVID-19 app.

Alternatively, if you have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus and not alerted in one of the above ways, you should self-isolate and take a test – with the option of taking a PCR test even if you do not have symptoms available to those who have been in close contact with someone with Covid-19.

Do I need to self-isolate if I’m identified as a close contact?

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Self-isolation in the UK remains in force for individuals who test positive, regardless of their vaccination status.

However, under current rules in Scotland those identified as a household close contact – living with someone confirmed to have Covid-19, has tested positive on a lateral flow test or who has symptoms – should self-isolate for 10 days to prevent the spread of the virus.

This mandatory self-isolation period even applies to those who have been fully vaccinated, so long as they are a household close contact.

Meanwhile, non-household contacts in Scotland can end their self-isolation if they have received at least two doses of a Covid vaccine and a negative PCR test result.

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These rules are different to those which currently apply in England and other parts of the UK.

In England, self-isolation is only required for those who have tested positive, have symptoms of Covid-19, have been told to self-isolate by Test and Trace or are confirmed to have coronavirus.

Those living in England do not need to self-isolate for a shortened seven day period if they are living with someone who has coronavirus, as long as they are fully vaccinated.

Instead, they should take daily lateral flow tests and are advised to limit their social interactions in case they develop any Covid symptoms.

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