Coronavirus Spreads Quickly. These People Are Racing Against The Clock To Stop It

Kate Forrester

For epidemiology expert Dr Freya Jephcott, the most important weapon against coronavirus Covid-19 isn’t hand gel, masks or soap – it’s your phone book.

There have been nine confirmed UK cases of the potentially deadly infection so far, and the battle by health professionals to contain it has so far centred around contact tracing.

Whenever someone is diagnosed, experts face a race against time to identify the people they might have infected – before those people spread the illness themselves without knowing.

There are currently about 400 Public Health England staff on standby across the country to quiz coronavirus patients on where they’ve been, and who with, since they fell ill. Dr Jephcott has experience in the field – a research fellow in epidemiology at the University of Cambridge and an expert in the outbreak and spread of the Ebola virus.


A woman wearing a face mask packs her suitcase in the departures area of Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport, after it was announced British Airways had suspended all services to and from China.


She participated in the large-scale programme of contact tracing carried out in Western Africa during Ebola’s most widespread emergence in 2014 – a time-consuming and manpower-heavy process.

The search for those who may have been contaminated with Ebola in some cases required literally chasing people through thickets in Sierra Leone. By contrast, the detective work being undertaken to contain Covid-19 is rather more bureaucratic – so far, anyway. 

“It is often a case of literally sitting down for hours with a patient, going through sometimes weeks of where they have been, who they have spoken to, who they might have come into contact with – then trying to trace those people, which could throw up even more potential exposure cases,” she told HuffPost UK. 

“Couple that with a patient who is feeling ill and may need to take breaks, and you have a process that may take days and days for just one person.  It’s extremely labour-intensive and takes a huge number of people.”

It is this “shoe-leather epidemiology” that is being deployed by Public Health England – but teams are able to speed up...

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