Dental nurse and newly qualified dental hygienist Sarah Hartle rapidly switched her professional plans in response to the urgent need for NHS Test and Trace workers.

Sarah Hartle, 34, from Manchester, has been a dental nurse ever since she left school and has been studying at university to become a dental hygienist.

She successfully gained her qualification on the day the country went into lockdown back in March. She says: ‘It was literally a few hours after I had qualified. I had been studying since 2018 and it had all been building to this – but now I had nothing, no means of earning, plus I had two young children who suddenly weren’t at school.’

Although she was frustrated she couldn’t start her new role, she was keen to use her training as part of the NHS Test and Trace process.

She explains: ‘Then I got this email from the General Dental Council, asking for healthcare professionals to join the virtual frontline. I had a look, and being an NHS clinical contact caseworker seemed like the perfect job for me. I could choose my hours and work from home, so I could do 8.00am to noon on weekdays and spend the afternoon helping the children with their schoolwork. Then I’d be able to put in a couple of eight-hour shifts at the weekend.’

As an NHS clinical contact caseworker, she is responsible for liaising over the phone with COVID-19 patients, understanding their situation and assisting in the tracing of anyone they have been in contact with.

Sarah has dealt with many cases since she started the role, from elderly patients, parents struggling to look after their children whilst ill, to a woman who had just given birth.

The mother of two young children said: ‘I really feel like we’ve helped to make a difference. Updates have been made to the system that has made our roles as contact tracers even more effective. For example, as travel regulations changed, so did the system, allowing us to collect the relevant information from patients for taxi rides and international travel, which has been invaluable.

‘The translation service is wonderful and the document outlining procedure is easy to follow, quick, and works extremely well. I have used the translation service on a call and found that the patient responded very positively. Inevitably, we have come across queries in the role as each patient is so different, but these queries have all been fed back to the system developers who are continually updating the system for the better. This makes it much easier to identify outbreak risks for patients and contacts, and collect the correct information in one call to the patient, meaning we can act more swiftly in escalation, contact tracing and protecting people’

Suffer in isolation

Sarah says that the work has been rewarding, and opened her eyes to how all sorts of people can suffer in isolation. ‘One lady said to me: “Please can you call me every day? Because this has made me feel so much better.” It is just having someone to listen. I can’t understand what they are going through but I can give them a platform, a place they can vent their frustration or talk about their anxiety, and I can tell them everything that they are doing is OK. So much of it is about reassurance.

‘One of my first cases was a poor mum whose family had coronavirus and she seemed to feel so guilty about it. The whole family tested positive – the dad, a toddler and a young baby – and she was convinced she had given it to all of them and felt so bad about it. She was so emotional and it was one of those where she just needed some support. Her partner couldn’t get out of bed, he was so ill, and the whole family was really struggling. They were all isolating and she just needed someone to listen to her. I told her of course it was OK that the whole family weren’t having proper meals, and that just grabbing something to keep them going was fine during this time. So not only am I there to talk symptoms and advice on the medical side, but also the mental side too, offering emotional support. And then there is letting them know about the practical support that is out there too, like whether the council can help with the grocery shop.’

No two calls are the same

Sarah says there is no typical day as a clinical contact caseworker as no two calls are the same. Some need little assistance and it can be a quick call, but others need to be handled with a lot of time and care. ‘On a busy day I may do eight or nine calls in an eight-hour shift. You can be done with taking all the details sometimes but then end up spending an extra half an hour on the phone talking about what they are having for tea. It’s that human interaction that people need when they are suddenly in isolation like this.

‘I had another emotional call with an elderly lady who lived on her own. It took her about 10 minutes to answer the phone as she had to get herself out of bed to get to the call. When she finally did get the phone she was so out of breath and coughing a great deal. It was very worrying. I thought we might have to call an ambulance, but I was able to speak calmly to her and allowed her breathing to ease before we began our conversation.

‘Another woman I spoke to had just given birth after testing positive for coronavirus. She had been tested as part of her pre-Caesarean section assessment, which meant her husband couldn’t attend the birth as he tested negative. She said the NHS staff were incredible at helping her through the birth, and afterwards she had midwife support by phone. I helped her identify any close contacts she may have missed in this hugely emotional and distressing time, and reassured her about the support. It’s times like that you know you are really making a difference with this role.’

She adds: ‘I am really enjoying being part of NHS Test and Trace. My role is crucial in helping to stop the spread of the virus so that we can continue to ease lockdown. NHS Test and Trace will only work though if people engage with us and play their part to work together for the greater good to stop the spread of the virus.’

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NHS Test and Trace

  • NHS Test and Trace brings together testing, contact tracing and outbreak management to help prevent the spread of the virus and save lives
  • It is here to keep all of us safe and allow us to enjoy summer safely
  • Everyone with symptoms, no matter how mild, can get a free test
  • The quickest way for people to get a test result is if they use one of the drive-through or walk in testing sites
  • Book a free test, when you get symptoms, at or by calling 119
  • Isolate as soon as you or another member of your household gets symptoms or if asked to do so by NHS Test and Trace
  • Share information about recent close contacts with NHS Test and Trace if you test positive for Covid-19
  • Contact tracing is the most effective way of controlling the spread of the virus and is being used around the world alongside social distancing and hygiene measures

For information and advice in England go to