Testing people to see if they are currently infected or previously infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is a key component of medical management, public health monitoring and research. Diagnosing people as having active infections is a fundamental part of any test and contact tracing system. Improving the speed and accuracy of tests that detect current infections is a research priority and the focus of recent UK Government investment and policy decisions. Antibody tests are also an important tool to understand how many people in the population have been infected and how their immune system responded. This article explains how the accuracy of tests is determined, how different test characteristics suit different purposes, and the strengths and weaknesses of using them in different contexts.

Contact tracing apps could be used to control the COVID-19 outbreak. Most of them work by automatically registering another smartphone when it is close by for a set period of time. If the user then tests positive for COVID-19 in the future, the contact tracing app notifies these contacts. Concerns have been raised about misuse of personal data. Initial data suggests there has been slow uptake of this new technology by users, and it's unclear if contact tracing apps have had or will affect the pandemic. Northern Ireland, Scotland, and now England and Wales have recently launched contact tracing apps.

The POST Board approved 3 new POSTnotes on 16 September 2020. Topics include childhood obesity, preventing zoonotic diseases, and digital skills for life. Work on these topics will start in January 2021.

  • Work programme

    A POSTnote on digital skills for life will discuss the digital skills required for everyday life and employment, why parts of the population may lack these skills and which groups are most affected. It will consider the impact of the skills shortage on individuals and the economy as well as strategies to improve the population’s digital skills. Provisional start date: January 2021.

  • Work programme

    A POSTnote on preventing zoonotic diseases will review the evidence on a One Health approach to zoonoses prevention. It will focus on the animal-environment-human interface in both wild and domestic animals, reviewing national and international policy approaches, and lessons learnt from previous epidemics. It will also summarise opportunities and challenges for the UK’s role in global health and biosecurity policy arenas post COVID-19. Provisional start date: January 2021.

  • Rapid response

    There is emerging evidence that COVID-19 affects many systems of the body, with patients reporting a wide range of symptoms. ‘Long-haulers’ are patients who experience ongoing COVID-19 symptoms for several months after infection. These include fatigue, difficulties in thinking, shortness of breath, chest pain, irregular or abnormal heart rhythm, and joint pain. 

  • Rapid response

    Disadvantaged pupils tend to have lower educational attainment compared with their peers; this is often called the disadvantage gap. School closures, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, are likely to have widened the disadvantage gap. This is because disadvantaged pupils tend to have less access to technology, spend less time learning and have reduced support from parents/carers compared with their peers.

  • Rapid response

    The latest research suggests that antibodies can be detected in recovered patients for up to 2 to 3 months after symptoms. There's also emerging evidence for the role of T cells in the immune response. A better understanding of the immune response is vital if there is going to be a successful vaccine.

  • POSTbrief

    Plastic packaging waste has become a key consumer concern. In the UK, over 2.2 million tonnes of plastic packaging enter the consumer market each year. Much of this is used in the food sector because plastic packaging is cheap, light to transport, hygienic, and can be used to extend the product’s shelf-life. In the UK around 46% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, mostly through local authority collections. However several issues with the current systems of plastics recycling persist. This POSTbrief reviews proposals to Defra and HM Treasury to improve plastics recycling in the UK .

  • POSTbrief

    Medical tourism refers to when people seek medical treatment in a different country than the one they reside. In the context of this brief it refers to UK residents seeking elective, non-emergency medical treatment abroad. This briefing outlines the nature of the global medical tourism industry, the number of UK residents seeking medical treatments abroad, the types of treatments sought and the reasons for seeking them, the countries visited, and examines the issues raised for the patients and for the NHS on their return.

  • Rapid response

    Children who have COVID-19 are not likely to develop severe symptoms. They are also much less likely to die from the disease than people in older age groups. there is some evidence on infection risk for under 13s and for BAME children but more data from well-designed studies is needed to draw conclusions.

  • Rapid response

    Charities and academics have expressed concerns that children’s mental health is disproportionately affected by the intervention measures used during the pandemic. Child and adolescent mental health may be compromised by factors such as strained family relationships, academic stress and reduced social contact with friends. Child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) have been reduced during the pandemic. They are likely to be under strain to meet increased demand. The UK Government has announced funding to ensure that charities can continue supporting those in need.