COVID-19: Public health surveillance, primary care clinical trials, and improving data quality

3D image of coronavirus

03 April 2020

The RCGP Research and Surveillance Centre (RSC) has increased its virology surveillance in response to COVID-19. Because of this, over 4,000 practices using EMIS Health clinical software have been invited to join the RSC network, with a great response so far. In the near future, we hope to recruit more practices using TPP clinical software. 

If your practice signs up, you will be helping us to track the spread of this virus, detect the peak of the epidemic, and monitor the impact of public health measures. This is of vital important to guide the national COVID-19 response including decisions around when to change current lockdown measures.

Extended virology surveillance: COVID-19 self-swabbing now available

The RCGP RSC and Public Health England (PHE) have joined together with Saving Lives, a charity specialised in the distribution of self-tests, to provide self-test kits to practices. Within the RCGP RSC network there are now over 70 self-swabbing practices and over 120 expressions of interest to join the network. In these practices, patients with influenza-like illness (ILI) and lower respiratory tract infection (LRTI) symptoms can have a swab posted to their home for self-testing. This is convenient for patients and reduces the risk of infection for practice staff. Patients send their swabs directly to PHE labs for testing, and patients and practices are advised of the outcome. This essential work is helping to efficiently identify patients with COVID-19.

The PRINCIPLE Trial: Hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 amongst high risk patients in primary care

We are now actively recruiting RCGP RSC practices into our first COVID-19 clinical trial, led by the Oxford Primary Care Clinical Trials Unit. The PRINCIPLE trial is a large, innovative clinical trial testing potential drug treatments for COVID-19 in primary care. The first drug to be tested is Hydroxychloroquine, but we anticipate that other potential drug treatments will be added in the future. We need to enrol 3,000 patients as quickly as possible if we are to provide the urgent clinical evidence needed for COVID-19 treatments. If your practice is interested in taking part in this important study, please contact

High quality coding to identify patients with COVID-19

It has never been more important for practices to use the appropriate codes for COVID-19 and respiratory tract infections to help surveillance work.

To improve data quality for COVID-19 surveillance, please use a diagnostic term, disorder or clinical problem from one of the following categories – Influenza Like Illness (ILI), Lower Respiratory Tract Infections (LRTI), or Upper Respiratory Tract Infections (URTI) – to record the presenting condition.

Please note that instead of recording a symptom, for example, ‘sore throat’ or ‘febrile illness’, we want you to record a diagnostic term such as pharyngitis or Influenza-like Illness because our surveillance systems depend on the presence or absence of diagnostic terms. On some systems, entering Influenza-like illness will trigger a template that will help you to enter the appropriate COVID-19 concepts. The template provides an easy way to record the relevant COVID-19 concepts, but you can also find them by conducting a search using the key phrase ‘COVID-19’.

When documenting COVID-19, the codes below will help to distinguish between definite and possible cases and those in the excluded case category



Definite case

Confirmed 2019-nCoV (Wuhan) infection 

Possible case

Exposure to 2019-nCoV (Wuhan) infection                

Suspected 2019-nCoV (Wuhan) infection                  

Tested for 2019-nCoV (Wuhan) infection            

Not a case

Excluded 2019-nCoV (Wuhan) infection


Please record the episode type, either First, New or Ongoing:

FIRST: First ever time the patient presents with the illness at your practice

NEW:  Patient presenting with a new episode of this illness at your practice

ONGOING: Follow up appointment for ongoing illness

Want to join the RCGP RSC in COVID-19 surveillance?

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the RCGP Research and Surveillance Centre has extended its collaboration of more than 50 years with Public Health England to incorporate COVID-19 into its surveillance. A vital part of this work will be to monitor the number of suspected COVID-19 cases in the community in a timely way.

Being a member of the RCGP RSC provides practices the fantastic opportunity for collaboration across primary care to create an observatory of testing and confirmed cases in the network of 4 million patients. The COVID-19 observatory provides a near real-time update on the cases across the network and the activity within primary care nationally and locally.

In addition to taking part in the current pandemic surveillance, member practices can be involved in research projects, which include funding for practice time. The RCGP RSC offers learning and development opportunities, such as eligibility for RCGP Research Ready accreditation and quality improvement using our practice dashboards. Practices can compare their data quality with others through their individual dashboard and look at the ‘episode type’ scattergram. 

To become part of a bottom-up professionally led network of like-minded practices, please download and complete our data request form [Word] and send it to . If you would like further information, please email:

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