Is workplace testing part of the COVID-19 solution?
We’ve seen several headlines in the past week about faster COVID-19 testing in the UK. The government is debating whether to halve current quarantine time for international arrivals if they pay for a test, and one is coming to the high street. With Boots now offering a 12-minute test, do business owners need to rethink their workplace policies?
Testing is starting to become more accessible, with faster results. From factories to office spaces and the high street, could employee testing mean businesses are able to continue with less impact?
We’re currently experiencing a rise in cases and renewed restrictions. The government isn’t ruling out introducing a Tier 4, and more regions are moving up tiers weekly. The national focus right now is back on bringing case numbers down through further social distancing and closures.
It’s clear then, that we’re not about to turn a corner here. The second wave so many reasonably predicted has come. Remote working isn’t going to be the right solution for everyone, forever. Significantly, though, it’s hard to say when the threat of COVID-19 will disappear. It seems rational now to consider how we create safe working environments for the long haul. Is workplace testing part of the solution?
For the week ending 18 October, 60% of working adults travelled to work, either exclusively or in combination with working from home. This was down 5% on the previous week. However, the government changing their working from home guidance on 22 September made almost no impact at all. In fact, even areas under local lockdown saw 55% of working adults going to work in the latest statistics.
By now you know how your team adapted to working from home, furlough or strict social distancing in warehouses or factories. With reinstated rules and restrictions, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on how you could improve your remote management. And, if your business requires employees on site, how you can keep them safe. For those who can work from home that may mean investing in better equipment for your employees. And for onsite work, it could mean investing in testing equipment.
According to the same ONS survey, 76% of adults are very or somewhat worried about the effects of the virus on their lives. Testing offers clarity and confidence for your team of their working environments. With more and more people back at work, an employer who calms fears is contributing to continuity of business.
Boots is offering a test that provides results within 12 minutes. With this available on the high street, it shows that testing can be fast and routine (even though it’s expensive at £120). Currently the test is available in store and only to people who aren’t displaying symptoms. It’s marketed as a pre-flight option or for those who want to see vulnerable family and friends. The test is therefore more about peace of mind.
Life sciences company, LumiraDx, developed the testing machines that Boots are using. At the end of August, NHS Scotland struck a deal for £6.76m on 300 of their units, including at least 500,000 tests. The machines are small and portable so are easily installed at local or mobile clinics. Nasal swabs can be processed quickly, giving customers fast results. At 12 minutes, it’s far quicker than the average 90-minute test.
The processing speed and portability of the machine makes an option like this highly competitive. For businesses that rely on keeping staff together, such as in manufacturing and construction, testing quickly and efficiently could prevent mass infection. At the very least, employees who have been exposed to someone that tested positive could very quickly find out their own results.
Private Equity firms, Blackstone and Advent, made the news last month as they offered free fortnightly testing for employees. All employees have been asked to avoid public transport entirely if they’re using the office and taxis are paid for. In fact, eighty-six UK businesses were using Bupa (the private health insurance and healthcare group) to regularly test their employees at the beginning of September.
It’s possible that you have employees who are vulnerable, or they’re living with somebody who’s shielding. There’s a huge benefit of being able to guarantee that those who need to come into work aren’t putting these people at risk. Being able to make your team feel supported beyond just professionally is crucial right now. This kind of support helps them cope with renewed pressures of the pandemic and contributes to employee confidence in their workplace and employer.
For many people in office jobs, working from home has been a strain on their mental health. Work-from-home circumstances and environments will vary significantly. Some team members may be in crowded flat shares, for example. Working from home is not universally an easy solution, even when the job permits it. But it's important that employers are holding their employees' safety at the utmost importance.
The government has published guidance on legal obligations and best practices for workplace testing. Any employer seriously considering introducing this must read the procedure carefully.
In short, a virus test will inform only you if somebody has COVID-19 at the moment they are tested. It’s the law that anyone testing positive must immediately self-isolate for 10 days from when they first showed symptoms. If they don’t have any symptoms then they must self-isolate for 10 days from the date of the test.
You can also consider pool testing to minimise expense if you’re testing a large group regularly. It works by mixing swab samples in batches of ten and testing that pool in one go. This requires the same amount of time and resources as a single test, hence the saving. If the batch comes back negative then all ten swabs are negative. If the batch is positive then the lab will retest the samples individually, but this happens less often. Overall, the cost to the employer is much lower.
Any positive test result needs to be reported to your local Health Protection Team. Using the NHS Track & Trace app is voluntary, so you can’t force employees to download it. You can encourage them to check in and create an NHS QR code and poster for them to scan when they come to work. The app is designed to help the NHS understand how quickly the virus is spreading rather than tracking any individuals. Users are notified if they come into contact with anyone who tests positive. If your staff wear PPE or are separated by Perspex then they don’t need to keep the app on while at work.
It’s worth noting that if an employee has symptoms you can refer for a test through the Employer Referral Portal. You can’t refer anyone who doesn’t have any symptoms for an NHS test. So being able to test at the workplace is especially useful if you want to test anyone who has been exposed but is asymptomatic. This would avoid the need to self-isolate if the test comes back negative. You are also ensuring the safety of your whole team by association.
Easy, speedy testing that can be carried out regularly and at scale is seen as vital in stemming the second wave. Until we have a vaccine, it’s unlikely that we’re going to end social distancing.
The cost of testing will be the most prohibitive factor, no doubt. But if we still don’t have a vaccine and businesses need employees in the workplace then we need to commit to making these as safe as possible. And with many people finding working from home a strain on their mental health, it’s important for employers to consider all their options.