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Germany rely on old-fashioned approach and manually traced COVID-19

Germany’s ‘virus detectives’ rely on old-fashioned ‘shoe leather’ approach and manually traced Covid-19 as early as possible – unlike the UK and many other countries

  • The UK are working hard on a contact tracing programme to track coronavirus
  • Germany, meanwhile, traced the virus through manual means as well as an app
  • Contact tracers operate locally in Germany, with recruits divided in the 16 states 
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Unlike the UK and many other countries, Germany never gave up on contact tracing, even as infections ballooned.

While Britain’s Ministers stopped trying to keep tabs on new infections on March 12 – believing there was little point as cases were likely to head into the millions – Germany persevered by doggedly pursuing the contacts of each new confirmed Covid case.

In part, that was because Germany could. It had the testing capacity to identify most new cases, which the UK did not. 

While the UK had to scrap contact tracing on March 12 due to a large volume of people already contracting the virus, Germany (above) never gave up on the idea

And it means that while Britain has had to create a contact tracing system largely from scratch, Germany had the simpler task of upping capacity.

And Germany hasn’t been dazzled by the beguiling prospect of a mobile phone app that can solve all its contact tracing problems. 

Thanks to some of the world’s toughest privacy laws, its politicians decided they could not rely on digital surveillance alone.

Instead, it is developing a smartphone app that is seen as an adjunct to what public health experts describe as the ‘shoe leather’ approach – old-fashioned, tried-and-tested, manual contact tracing of infectious disease.

While Germany are developing a smartphone app, the country realised that it could not rely on digital surveillance alone

Wherever possible, tracers are drawn from the ranks of the medical professions – including students and the retired – backed up largely by other public sector workers who are used to dealing with people in their work, such as firefighters and teachers.

Perhaps because of this, they seem less bound to a rigid script than may be the case in the UK. 

One tracer, Joachim Lazarek, 39, from Würzburg, likened it to ‘detective work’, saying: ‘We try to understand the person and get a picture of their whole lives. Did you talk over the fence with someone? Were you at the doctor? Were you walking with your partner?

‘When I call someone who has tested positive, I must first gently break the news that the person has Covid-19. It’s about taking away people’s fears and informing them very clearly what they can do.

‘Once I have established a rapport, I tell the patient how to quarantine. Then I begin the laborious process of making a list of everyone the infected person had face-to-face contact with for more than 15 minutes, starting two days before their symptoms began.’

While similar numbers have been recruited so far in both countries – between 20,000 and 25,000 – how they are organised is very different. 

In Britain, a centrally planned system will have call centre-based tracers ringing up people all over the country. 

As one recruit was told: ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re calling from Brighton, Belfast or Bolton.’

By contrast, Germans are keeping contact tracing local, with each of its 16 states responsible for its own recruitment. 

Germany have kept their contact tracing local – the 16 states which make up the company are responsible for their own recruitment of contact tracers who help work out who has the virus 

Most have published detailed figures on how many they have recruited, in marked contrast to the opaque situation on numbers here. 

For example, Bavaria has just under 2,000 tracers and is recruiting another 1,250. Lower Saxony has 1,000 and wants to double that. Baden-Württemberg aimed for 2,750 but now has more than 3,000.

Germany’s public health agency, the Robert Koch Institute, explained: ‘Central government acts in close conjunction with the states, but the decision was taken early on that individual states would themselves be responsible for contact tracing as people know the communities they live and work in.’

The other big difference, of course, is that Germany’s contact tracing system is already up and running – while in the UK it is not.

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