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Contact tracing is an important tool for allowing countries to ease lockdown policies introduced to combat SARS-CoV-2. For contact tracing to be effective, those with symptoms must self-report themselves while their contacts must self-isolate when asked. However, policies such as legal enforcement of self-isolation can create trade-offs by dissuading individuals from self-reporting. We use an existing branching process model to examine which aspects of contact tracing adherence should be prioritized. We consider an inverse relationship between self-isolation adherence and self-reporting engagement, assuming that increasingly strict self-isolation policies will result in fewer individuals self-reporting to the programme. We find that policies which increase the average duration of self-isolation, or that increase the probability that people self-isolate at all, at the expense of reduced self-reporting rate, will not decrease the risk of a large outbreak and may increase the risk, depending on the strength of the trade-off. These results suggest that policies to increase self-isolation adherence should be implemented carefully. Policies that increase self-isolation adherence at the cost of self-reporting rates should be avoided. This article is part of the theme issue 'Modelling that shaped the early COVID-19 pandemic response in the UK'.

Original publication




Journal article


Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences

Publication Date





Big Data Institute, Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.