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Contact tracing is a central public health response to infectious disease outbreaks, especially in the early stages of an outbreak when specific treatments are limited. Importation of novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) from China and elsewhere into the United Kingdom highlights the need to understand the impact of contact tracing as a control measure. Using detailed survey information on social encounters coupled to predictive models, we investigate the likely efficacy of the current UK definition of a close contact (within 2 meters for 15 minutes or more) and the distribution of secondary cases that may go untraced. Taking recent estimates for COVID-19 transmission, we show that less than 1 in 5 cases will generate any subsequent untraced cases, although this comes at a high logistical burden with an average of 36.1 individuals (95th percentiles 0-182) traced per case. Changes to the definition of a close contact can reduce this burden, but with increased risk of untraced cases; we estimate that any definition where close contact requires more than 4 hours of contact is likely to lead to uncontrolled spread.

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